Tag Archives: grief

Reading and the Encouragement Of a Friend When Needed

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is going to a weird post. It is mixed with various emotions, feelings of failure, abandonment, physical disability, frustration with a system, and yet another loss of a friend. It is also a reflection on my love of history and wisdom from the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the midst of a crisis that threatened the fate of the entire country and its citizens. In his first inaugural address he noted: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

It has been a hard few days, and for that matter the last decade or so and I am exhausted. I didn’t post anything for two days because I was too tired, so I finished reading Doris Kearns Godwin’s book Leadership In Turbulent Times. I am glad that I did because I have become quite discouraged about all the things wrong with my knees, hips, ankles and other medical problems; weight gain from being unable to do what I like doing (walking and running); and frustration with the delays in care I experience with Navy Medicine. I am physically broken as well as spiritually and emotionally depleted. I feel crippled.

The book deals with the lives, points of crisis, and leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. It is worth the read, for all experienced failure and when in office had to deal with issues that threatened the Nation itself.

I am struggling at the end of my military career of almost 38 years. I was beginning to have quite the pity party. Not to say that I am not struggling, I have been feeling like a failure of late, crippled and useless; but Goodwin’s depiction of Franklin Roosevelt’s continual battle with Polio and the way that he kept a positive outlook and encouraged others, in such a manner that what would have kept others from any kind of success. The key to his success was investing in others and making a connection with people no-matter where he served.

Late last night I got a personal message form one of my sailors, at the time a young enlisted man expressing his care for me and Judy. It ended up in a conversation and it made me think about what Roosevelt did with others. I expressed my real gratitude to him, he has a good heart, and cares for for people, probably better than I do, and I told him that. His care for me made caused me to reflect, I have felt like a cast off from the Chaplain Corps for years, yet here was a young man remembering me from service together that began in 2001, and he took the time to encourage me when I was down. That’s the way Franklin Roosevelt dealt with people.

I began to think about my my knees and having to use a cane to keep me stable on my feet. I figure if Roosevelt could find ways to succeed and not let himself slip into self-pity, then maybe I can too, no matter what goes on with my knees. My young friend reminded me of that. He also reminded me that care for people was why I am here.

Likewise, yesterday I was down about the death of my friend Father Jim Parke. Father Jim was the kind of man who never knew a stranger and for the last 16 years of our lives he has been there for us in times of difficulty and joy.

To my friend Marc, thank you. You made my day last night, and Father Jim, my friend thank you for years of friendship, and Rest In Peace.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Unexpected Loss in the Wake of a Storm


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was a sad day as we unexpectedly lost a friend due to a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. Our friend Dave Shaw had just returned from a business trip and we actually saw him last night before Tropical Storm Hermine hit our area. When I saw him leaving the bar he did not seem to be well, but I assumed that it was simply being tired from his flight home, but I was wrong. 

I found out about Dave’s passing from my friend John as I was cleaning up the mess left by the storm. A mess that was only that as well suffered no real property damage, though we are going to have to find out why water is entering our house from our back yard. That is why we have insurance, but I digress. Had all we had to deal with was the post storm hassle today would have been easy, but we lost Dave, something far greater than our temporary inconvenience. 

Dave was really a good guy, and a friend to many people. He was a retired Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman and was only 61 years old. Dave had friends who were much closer to him than me and I am sure that our mutual friends Randy and Dave are grieving more than I could ever grieve his loss as they were both much closer to him than I ever was. We were able to go with him, Jeri, and a number of other friends to the Oktoberfest in Munich just two years ago. While we were ther Dave donned a Burger King Crown and a German nicknamed him the King of Virginia, a nickname that he relished, and with good reason. 

It was sad for so many reasons, but especially because Dave and his wife Jeri were happy. They were married less than a year ago, but from the time that they met a few years ago I had never seen Dave so happy. They had just purchased a motor home so they could travel and create new adventures when he planned on retiring from his civilian job in the spring. 

I went an visited Jeri this evening, and we will do what we can to help her over the days ahead, as will many other dear friends. 

When you lose a friend unexpectedly it is most difficult, but that being said it would be worse never having to know them or have missed out on the simple joy of friendship. I would have rather that Dave had been able to live out another twenty or thirty years with his beloved Jeri traveling around the country and also enjoying his time with so many of his other friends, here, and around the world. 

As word of his passing spread I saw many wonderful comments and expressions of love and loss. Dave will be missed by so many people. Today the folks at Gordon Biersch leaned the barstool where he sat against the bar and placed a full stein of his favorite beer in front of it. It was a gesture of love and respect for a friend who though gone from us in the flesh will remain part of all of us forever. 


So until tomorrow, please take the time to love and care for your friends, and if you will, please lift a stein or pint in memory of Dave, the King of Virginia. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Interpreting a Life

GeorgePickett

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been working on an update to my Gettysburg text dealing with Pickett’s Charge, in particular focusing a lot of attention on the life of the man whose name is forever linked to that calamitous attack, Major General George Pickett. Like what I have written recently about the tragic heroes of Little Round Top, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, Colonel Strong Vincent and Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren I am finding a character who is different than much of the myth surrounding him. Though not the intellectual equal of the three men mentioned above he too is a tragic figure in his own way. I expect to be publishing that update to that chapter tomorrow.

Like so much of what I do the pursuit of a fair treatment of this man leads me to find more and more information that like everything else that I write about must be questioned and examined in light of circumstance, the motivation of the chroniclers, as well as what we now know about psychology and sociology. When we do this we are able to see beyond the romanticized portrait of Pickett seen in the movie Gettysburg where he is played by Stephen Lang, and see a much more complex individual, a man of many contradictions and much personal tragedy, even before Gettysburg.

I will mention one thing that gave me an insight into Pickett was the fact that he was a chronic rule breaker at West Point, almost always on the edge of being expelled for behavior demerits. He was also a man who had no problem in bucking the system, especially in school and at West Point. One might find that trait inconstant for a man who became a career Army officer, but I can relate to it in many ways. While I identify more with men like Warren and Chamberlain in terms of their intellectual interests and often contradictory personalities, I find in Pickett’s antics at West Point a kindred spirit who didn’t have a problem breaking rules and pushing a system that he thought was dehumanizing and arbitrary. I have been that way through much of my military career when it comes to breaking or bending rules when it appeared that they made no sense. Many people who know me are often perplexed that someone who has served as a commissioned officer for over thirty years can be such a rebel.

I think that is part of the attraction of looking at the lives of leaders and not isolating their actions at any one particular event. We are all products of our entire life experience, our family background and often owe our place in life not just to our own achievements but to the actions of others who work to give us the opportunity to succeed, sometimes in spite of ourselves. We also have the benefit of friends who remain friends in spite of circumstances; for George Pickett one of these lifelong friends was another misfit, Ulysses S. Grant. Pickett also gained enemies, often people who did not appreciate his lightness or humor, and those like Robert E. Lee who could not abide his honesty after the battle of Gettysburg and for what can be deciphered from the available records held it against him until he died.

Pickett was also a men who felt betrayed by some leaders, especially Lee. The disaster that afflicted his division during the great charge took something from him. He was a true believer in the “cause” but saw his division and later his own reputation destroyed by the man who became the heart and soul of the lost cause, Robert E. Lee.

History is never easy to put together especially when we examine the often contradictory lives of the individuals involved, their sometimes unusual motivations, strange personalities and their quirky behaviors. Much as it is with ourselves. We often learn too that we don’t make our way alone, we all have the help of others in getting us where we go and quite often the faithful companionship of friends. These are all part of examining history and life and things that matter…at least to me.

So anyway my friends, until tomorrow I am yours.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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Gratitude, Relationships and Hope; Even in Death

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“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today I was able to attend the Celebration of Life for Captain Tom Sitsch. It was good to be able to attend. I was able to meet his brother Mike and Sister Karen as well as many others who knew and loved Tom. These included men that I know from my time with EOD Group Two, some of whom have since retired from the military.

I was touched by the words that Mike and Karen spoke about Tom, as well as the remembrances of others. There were times during the service that I felt tears coming down my cheeks, and when I needed to wipe them from my eyes.

The pastor who spoke mentioned something that resonated with me. He noted that when he talked with Tom about God and faith, that Tom commented to him that “after all he had seen and experienced he didn’t know if he could believe in God.” That I can understand, there is something about the moral injury of war, not just the the physical injuries sustained or the clinical diagnosis of PTSD, or Traumatic Brain Injury that does terrible damage to the soul. A good number of people noted that they thought that he saw something, or experienced a loss in his last tour in Iraq that shook him beyond anything he had ever anticipated. That too I can understand.

It was good to be able to be invited to attend and for me it was a good chance to remember the life of a man who was there for me when I needed it. There was a slide show that depicted Tom’s life, his love for is family, his military career and the life that he attempted to life after his retirement. Between the stories, the shared memories and the pictures I gained an even greater appreciation for Tom Sitsch.

On a personal side it was just good to be there with people who knew and loved Tom. It was really good for me because for once I didn’t have any official role. I cannot remember the last time when I went to a memorial service where I was not involved in the planning, execution or participation in it, quite often as the primary speaker. For once I was able to grieve, remember and celebrate the man that I knew with others whose lives he touched.

It was just good to be with such good people, all of who loved and cared for Tom. There is something healing when people are able to grieve the loss of someone they love together. It is healing, even when tears are shed. Unfortunately, there is nothing any of us can do to bring Tom back. We all, his family, friends, and those that he served alongside all grieve, each in our own way, but we share a common grief, that of the loss of a man who touched our lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted about loss:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” 

The loss of Tom Sitsch left all of us with many beautiful remembrances, which as Bonhoeffer so correctly noted that his separation from us s “more difficult.”

But in the midst of the deep feelings of loss that all of us felt, there were questions. Many wondered what they could have done to change the tragic outcome. The question of “what if?” bothers all of us. Likewise, there was the realization that there are others, who like Tom who need help and are probably not getting it.

My prayers go put to all those who feel the loss of Tom Sitsch, especially his family, friends and those that served with him.

Tonight I heard from a Navy Chaplain that I had not talked to in a long time. It was really good to spend time on the phone with him. I had the honor of baptizing his children back in 2000 when he was my Religious Program specialist. He went on to become a chaplain and do well, serving in the thick of the fighting in Al Anbar Province with a Marine Corps infantry battalion, just missing getting blown up in a large IED blast after completing a service for Marines at a Combat Outpost. He will be retiring later this year, and I hope that he can get on with the Veterans Administration to continue to care for our veterans.

I do hope that in some little way that I can be of help to those who grieve, and those whose lives have been torn apart by the trauma of war. Hopefully, in my own small way, even though I am often filled with doubt, unbelief, and usually have more questions than I have answers, I can at least be there for people who struggle.

I go to bed tonight grateful for what Tom Sitsch did for me; for being invited to attend the service today, to be with others who grieve, and to reunite with an old friend. Those are some of the remarkable things about military life that I am thankful.

Well, that is all for tonight, except for a prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen. (From the Book of Common Prayer) 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Tapestry of Life: How PTSD and Combat Stress is a Part of Who and What We Are

I have been dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress over 3 ½ years.  In that time I have had my struggles going ranging from falling into the abyss to a measure of recovery and occasional relapses.  It has been a difficult time which has stretched me in ways that I never dreamed and given me perspective on what it is to live, to have faith and to experience life in ways that I could not have imagined before I deployed toIraq.

Within a few weeks of beginning therapy I was asked by my therapist what I wanted to do with my experience.  I really didn’t know, I was in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown and crisis of faith.  When my therapist asked me “well Padre how are you with the Big Guy” I could only answer “I don’t know if God exists anymore or if he does if he cares about me.”  My therapist was the first person that asked me about my spiritual life after I returned.  No clergy of any kind asked that question.  I guess that they assumed quite wrongly that I hadn’t really changed.  There is a tendency among clergy to ignore the obvious when a colleague begins to fall apart.

In fact it is really a cultural problem.  Often the advice to someone dealing with trauma and the experience of grief which often compounds traumatic experience is to “forget about it” or “put it behind you and move forward.”  Some therapists and pastors seem to have burying the experience, reliving it time and time again until you are numb or simply try to expunge it from memory as their goal.

The problem with all of these “methods” is that they label the person who has been traumatized and the complex grief that they experience as a result of the trauma as ill, damaged or broken.  But it the opposite is true, people that have experienced trauma especially in a combat zone are simply having a normal reaction to experiences that are not normal.

We adapt to war and the experience becomes part of who we are.  It is a survival tool that humans have had ever since the first skirmishes between primitive tribes.  However primitives actually have an advantage over the modern human.  They went to war to defend their families and homes.  The warriors would be sent out with fanfare, religious ceremonies and ritual. When they returned they would be brought back into the tribe, new warriors who had distinguished themselves would be noted, sometimes marked in some physical manner.  Rituals marked the re-entry of the warriors and they would be reincorporated into the community. Some societies would incorporate rituals for individuals to do as they re-entered the community. Their stories would become part of the tribe’s oral tradition and passed down to successive generations.

Today’s modern American warrior doesn’t go to war with his neighbors.  These warriors go to war with men and women that come from many parts of the country, US territories or immigrants and when they leave service they often return to neighbors, friends and families that care about them but do not understand them or their experience. The reactions that they developed in combat and their response to perceived threats are considered dangerous or abnormal.  People tell them that they need to go back to what they were before the war experience but they can’t because they have been changed by their experiences.

We live in a culture of denial. All too often it seems that society simply wants the traumatized and grieving veteran just be quiet, see a shrink, go to a PTSD group and “get well.”  Many times churches and religious institutions treat the problem as some kind of spiritual shortcoming.  Many Christian veterans come home and find that they are shunned because they have doubts or because they don’t “get better” after people pray for them.  I was reading a faux news article which was more like an infomercial for a CD that promotes a method as “Be still and know….”  It was developed by a reserve Army Chaplain and Christian therapist. It is designed to make it all go away.  Do the method right and you get better, God heals you and you live happily ever after until something breaks the cycle of denial and you crash.  I do believe that God heals but I don’t believe that God makes everything magically go away like it never happened.  Such a belief is not supported in Scripture, the testimony of the early Church or for that matter most of the Christian tradition.

This week I was being filmed for a Department of Defense program called The Real Warriors Campaign   http://www.realwarriors.net/which is designed to de-stigmatize Combat Stress injuries including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.  They picked up the article that was written about me in the Jacksonville Daily News in April of this year and asked if I would be willing to participate.   http://www.enctoday.com/articles/cmdr-89433-jdn-stephen-military.html

It was a hard week for me. I went to a functioned hosted by our hospital Wardroom at the base Officer’s Club Saturday night and while I enjoyed myself I hit sensory overload. When I got hope I was pretty edgy and to add to the situation we had some Marine helicopters flying in the area I live that night. As I tried to calm down I realized that I was going to be interviewed Tuesday and the thought scared the shit out of me.  Yes I had agreed to do it and yes I thought I needed to do it but my heavily introverted and relatively anti-social personality type now seasoned with reactivated PTSD symptoms couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t sleep and had the firstIraqrelated dreams I have had in many months. I did not even open the front door of my place on Sunday.  I couldn’t sleep Sunday night and got permission of my boss to get some assistance.  Since I couldn’t get a no-notice appointment with my current psychiatrist I called my first therapist and he was helpful. I went to a ball game and that helped calm me down.  I was still anxious but functional.

The two days of filming went pretty well for me, although I know with the possible exception of “COPS” there is no such thing as reality television.  This was not “reality television” but the goal was to try to show how I live life, work and relate to people after deployment.  The crew was really good and handled things professionally but even so it was packaged and things had to be have lighting, have different camera angles and required me to repeat things sometimes because of the privacy issues of patients in the hospital.  But it is what it is.  By the end of the two days I was pretty wiped out and simply rested last night.

However on Monday night before the interview I had an epiphany.  That simple illumination came from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called Tapestry I won’t ruin it for you but the final segment of the episode is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZeGzaJiP6g&feature=related

The epiphany was very simple.  All of our life, the good, the bad, the enjoyable and even the traumatic are part of a rich tapestry.  Those painful threads, the ones that we cause ourselves or the ones that are the result of trauma, grief and loss are part of who we are as human beings.  If we try to remove them we damage the tapestry and if we try or are persuaded by those that deny the reality of pain and suffering to remove the really painful and deep hurts, those which are the most tightly wound into the fabric of our lives, especially for the combat veteran we risk long lasting damage to our very soul.

The challenge is not to be “healed” or to compartmentalize the trauma and put it in some deep closet in our brain.  Nor is it to deny the trauma or for that matter keep trying to relive the trauma so that we are desensitized to the pain.  The real challenge is to allow our experiences of war, grief, loss and trauma to have their place in our lives knowing that without them we are not who we are.

I’m not saying that I have any real answer to what all of us that experience combat stress injuries deal with.  All I know is that I just want to be real and there are risks in opening up to people and reaching out to get help.  At the same time it is important to find a way to get help so we can adapt to our new reality.

As for me I went through some terrible times that still affect me.  Yes I went through a period of profound spiritual crisis and even a loss of faith and when I began to recover faith people that had been okay with me being broken ended up asking me to leave my church because the faith that I have now didn’t fit the narrow box that defined that church.

All that being said I am glad that my therapists or my supervisors allowed me and continue to allow me to work through the issues that still impact me and my ability to function in society, deal with others and even effect my marriage.  I wish every combat vet and survivor of trauma had that support.  I just hope that I can be worthy of the trust that they have place in me and that I will care for those entrusted to me with the same care and compassion that I was and am being shown.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, Military, Pastoral Care, philosophy, PTSD, Religion, star trek, Tour in Iraq

A death, a Rain Delay and a Visit from Saint Pete

This is a continuation of the story that I started in “Meeting Jesus and the Team at 7-11: A Baseball Fantasy” and “A Ballgame with Saint Pete: The Confluence of Faith and Baseball.” I have edited this from when I originally posted in last year and reposted it. I wrote the original article on my way to California for my dad’s funeral. When I started the series I did not expect my dad’s death, despite his long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote this article and started another which I will now finish and then continue the story from there. Somehow baseball helps me make sense of the world and adds to my spirituality in ways that I cannot explain to the non-member of the Church of Baseball. I just hope that the series touches people with the grace of God in some way, and that maybe they too will experience the love of God and the wonder of this wonderful game.

 

The news the next morning came like a thunderclap, as I was turning off my alarm clock which is located on my cell phone the phone rang to the tune of the Panzerlied which is my default ringer, a good German Army tune for a patently military Padre with an affinity for German military history.  I was not expecting the phone to ring as you might well image and squinted at the display to see just who might be calling me at this hour.  Without my glasses it was hard to see the display but nothing can come from a call this early in the morning. I looked at my watch to make sure that the cell phone time had been correct and that the call was not coming from someone at work seeing if I was running late which this morning despite having been up late the previous night I was not.  I hit the little green button with a phone on the key and put the device to my ever ringing ear, a product of too much noise exposure in Iraq according to my ENT, oh well, that and the loss of speech discrimination that I am experiencing tell me that the diagnosis is likely true.

“Hello” I asked warily wondering just whose voice would announce itself on the other end of the call.

“Hey Steve” announced the voice on the other end, it was my brother Jeff and I could tell that something bad had happened. “It’s Jeff I just got a call from the nursing home and they say that dad is hasn’t got much longer to live.” The voice was measured but full of emotion.

“Crap, okay, go on Jeff” my voice hesitated as Jeff continued to talk.

“Yeah, they called a few minutes ago and said that dad had taken a turn for the worse and that they didn’t expect him to live.” He paused for a second and continued. “I figured that they meant a few days so I asked them and the nurse told me that she didn’t think that he would live another half hour.”

I interrupted “a half hour?”

“Yeah, tell you what I need to get up there quick, I’ll call you from there to let you know what is going on.”

“Thanks Jeff be safe driving up there.” My voice trailed off as Jeff replied.

“I will Stevie.”

“One question, does mom know?”

“No they called me, I’ll let her know when I know something and I’ll call you as soon as I get up there.”

“Love you brother, be safe”

“Love you too” and with that Jeff hung up the phone.

I find it funny that my “little brother” refers to me on occasion as “Stevie” but he is my brother but he has been the more serious and grown up of the two of us since he was about eight years old. Dad used to say that he was eight going on forty back then and he still is the more serious and reserved of the two of us. When I was in high school and college he looked in askance when I went on toilet paper raids with friends and later with Judy around town.

In shock I walked back to the bed where Judy was awake and putting her glasses on. As I climbed back into the bed she asked “what’s wrong?” and reached out to me as I lay down next to her. “It was Jeff; he said that he got a call from the nursing home and that they said that dad was dying.” I looked up at her as she simply said “I didn’t expect that.”

“I didn’t either; Jeff is on the way up now, I don’t know what to think.” She cradled my head in her arms as I lay there stunned from the news.

“We’ve known for a long time that this was going to happen but…” I cut her off.

“But I just didn’t expect it now. I know that he hasn’t been the man that I knew for a long time with the Alzheimer’s but I just didn’t expect it. Kay had said that he was doing about the same, had gained some weight again and the last time I talked to mom and Jeff they said that he looked about the same as he has for a long time, I just figured that he would go on longer.” I paused as I took a deep breath and she said “I know” and held me close.  Seeing that we were up, Molly our vivacious Papillion-Dachshund mix pulled her 15 pounds of red fur and personality over us and wrapped her body around the top of our heads after squeezing herself between us and ensuring that she kissed each one of us.

We lay there for together not saying much as I wondered what was going to happen in the next few minutes. I prayed silently for my dad to have a peaceful death and to be with the Lord even as I searched for answers myself. It had not been that long, just about six month in fact since I had started believing again after my Christmas miracle. That had been a time, after Iraq I was falling apart and only got worse for most of the first two years after my return. I struggled with PTSD, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, severe depression, chronic pain gained a lot of weight and got out of shape but the worst part was feeling cut off from community and even worse cut off from God, the experience of feeling God forsaken shook me and it was not until shortly before Christmas that faith had began to return to my weary soul.  I hugged Judy and pressed up closer to her before realizing that I needed to get a shower realizing that I had just enough time to do this and get dressed before Jeff called back from the nursing home.

“Strange, yesterday I get the greatest news of my career and today this. It’s that damned Yin and Yang, those two have to always show up together why couldn’t I get time just to enjoy the news of the promotion?” It was a rhetorical question of course, I am not one that subscribes everything to God’s will which in my understanding would make God out to be a capricious and even somewhat cruel God, despite what the Calvinists and Augustinians say is part of his will for us. I have a problem with a God that would intentionally screw with his people like that and choose rather to believe that some things in life just happen, the good with the bad and that somehow that God will give us grace to get through the difficult times, even when we see no good reason for the timing of events. “Damned Yin and Yang, especially that Yang always shows up when you don’t want him to.

“I’ve got to get cleaned up and dressed I’ll have to go in to work after I hear from Jeff and rearrange my leave.”

“I guess this means another anniversary apart huh?” Judy looked at me and I simply replied “yeah what’s new?” I had planned to take a good amount of leave around our anniversary this Friday just to be with her, help her around the house and relax through the July 4th weekend but that was now out the window with dad’s death.  Over the 27 years of your marriage we have been apart more than together on this auspicious date that we share with the 1950 invasion of South Korea by the North and the 2009 death of Michael Jackson.  I spent our first anniversary in Landstuhl Army Medical Center back in 1984 and over the years had only been at home for 11 of our anniversaries. I guess being in the military you get used to this in fact with us it is almost a running joke, but this year I didn’t think we would be apart.

“I think that this means that we’re 11 for 27” I dryly said.

“I’ve stopped counting dear I just figure that it’s going to happen.”

“Yeah, me too” I pulled my body which now felt like it weighed a ton off the bed and headed to the shower and Molly looking somewhat offended snuggled closer to Judy.

About the time that I was finished dressing the phone rang again and it was Jeff telling me what I knew he was going to tell me.  I answered the phone resigned to the message that I knew was coming. “Hey Jeff, what’s going on?”

“Stevie, I’m here at the nursing home, I made it just after he died.  It looks like he just passed away in his sleep, he looks at peace.”

“That’s how we hoped it would be no suffering.”

“I know, I just didn’t think that it would happen this fast. I thought they would call us and that he would slip into a coma and take a few days to pass away.”

“Yeah, same here, I just didn’t expect it today, but then who does?”

“Hey Stevie, I call you back I need to go let mom know that he’s gone.” It was 3:25 AM in California.

“Okay, hang in there and good luck with mom, it will hit her hard I’m sure. Talk to you later, love you Jeff.”

“Sure thing…. later.” The phone went silent as Jeff hung up.  I got my gear together gave Judy a kiss goodbye, filled me a water bottle and headed to my car.  After loading my gear in my trusty war wagon festooned with bumper stickers of baseball teams and military units and newly issued Operation Iraqi Freedom license plates personalized with “FLAK88” my favorite artillery piece of World War Two turned the key and nothing. The battery was dead.

I went back in the house and let Judy know that I needed to borrow her car and then proceeded to load her car for the trip into work.  On the way I called Derek, our assistant Department Head to let him know what had happened and by 7:15 I was walking in the office door wearing my Tides road jersey and hat. I sat down with Derek for a while as he and I have very similar family situations and both of us were wondering who would be the first to lose their father.  The talk was helpful and Derek prayed for me as our Monsignor, Father Fred.  Fred when he was on active duty had been my first detailer, which in non-Navy parlance would be a personnel manager or assignments manager.  Fred and I have had a wonderful ministry together as Priests and he came into my office, closed the door and spent time with me, finishing with prayer and letting me know that he would offer Mass on my dad’s behalf.  He was followed by Father Roy a Canadian Army Priest in our Clinical Pastor Education Residency who offered his condolences and then let me know that he too would offer Mass for my dad.  I gathered the things that I would need to include my Summer White uniform, or as I love to call them my Faggoty White Uniform as Colonel Nathan R Jessup, Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie A Few Good Men called them.  Once I was packed I was on my way home where Judy awaited me as did my laptop with which I would make my travel arrangements.

I could not believe the prices to fly on short notice and the aggravation that I had in trying to use my frequent flyer miles or get a real person on the line on all airlines except Southwest. Although I was able to talk with the kind folks at Southwest, who by the way are always the most courteous of all the airline customer service agents, at least to me, I went online where I got my ticket on Southwest to Sacramento and made my rental car reservations.  Following all of the time spent making arrangements my neighbor Larry jumped my car which enabled me to go to the auto part store for a battery.

Finally about exhausted and with the temperatures in the high 90s with unbearable humidity Judy and I went and got a beer and light lunch at Biersch before the ball game which I knew that I needed.  It is funny how baseball of all things works to calm me when nothing else will and how even when I experience great loss baseball is there for me. It is much as Walt Whitman once said: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair those losses, and be a blessing to us.” Baseball is a blessing to me, something that the Deity Herself must have figured when I was conceived to a couple of baseball fans who in addition to raising me right taught me to love this game.

I looked up at the sky and realized that there was a strong possibility that rain would affect the game as I got out of my car at Harbor Park.  When you live in these parts you can tell by the look, feel and smell when a storm is coming and this was one of those days.  I entered the park, as Bill “Spaceman” Lee once said “as one enters a church” paying my respects to the folks that I now know well at the front gate walking up the stairs to the concourse where I was greeted by Will, one of the ushers who helps people as they come up the stairs offering greetings to those that he knows while directing first time visitors in the proper direction.  I let Will know what had happened and he offered his condolences and said that he would pray for my family too.

I made my way across the concourse and looked out at the lush diamond below, the grounds crew was preparing the infield for the game as Rip Tide mugged for fans and the Tides band played on the concourse.  Vendors selling all types of food and drink were busily engaged in their work while Marty the Card dealer talked with a customer.  I stopped trying to figure out what I wanted to do next and decided to get a Tides dog and a beer before going down to my seat. This is a comfort food for me and like Humphrey Bogart said “A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.” Going down to “Rosie’s Grill” on the third base side of the concourse I ordered the dog and the beer, a draft Yuengling Lager and after dousing the dog in mustard and relish I went over to a table and ate the dog there as I stared out at the diamond occasionally looking across the Elizabeth River to the shipyards and dry docks and the Staten Island Ferry that was high and dry in the dry dock directly across from right center field.

My mind wandered thinking about the many times that dad had taken me to ball games and how much that meant to me.  The last game that we saw together was a Stockton Ports game at Banner Island Ballpark back in 2005 or 2006 when the Alzheimer’s was just starting to show up in his daily life and instead of being able to really enjoy the game he nervously paced the concourse behind home plate for much of the game.  That was so unlike him and I knew that he was slipping even though he did not yet recognize it. When I finished the dog I took my beer and my bag with my camera and windbreaker in it down the concourse where I met Chip the usher who greeted me in his usual friendly manner.

“Hey Steve how are you doing? Celebrating the promotion?”

I looked at Chip and sighed. “Chip it’s the damndest thing I thought that I would be celebrating and my brother called this morning to let me know that my dad died.”  Chip looked at me and shook his head.

“Sorry to hear that, he’d been sick for a while?”

“Yeah, the Alzheimer’s didn’t even know who the hell I was the last time that I saw him; at least he went peacefully in his sleep.”

“But still…”

“Yeah, really threw me for a loop, I just didn’t expect it to happen now even though I have expected it for the last two years.”  I paused.

“I’m really sorry Steve; I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers. When are you going out?”

“Tomorrow afternoon.”

“Okay, I’ll keep you in my prayers my friend.”

“Thanks, I better go down and see Elliott.”

“Catch you later.”

“You bet.”

I walked down the stairs to see Elliott waving at me having already wiped down my seats.  I got down to where he was and he greeted me cheerfully. “Hello Padre, just you tonight?”

“Yeah just me.”

“I hope we don’t get rain tonight”

“Sure looks like we might it feels like rain.”

“Yeah, so how are you doing?”

“Not so good, I won’t be here for a while I got a call from my brother this morning to tell me that dad is dead. I fly out tomorrow.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that Steve.” I knew Elliott like Chip meant what he said.

“Yeah, hard to believe, I thought that God might actually let me enjoy a full day with my promotion.” I paused as Elliot let me continue, a good usher like a good bartender is a good listener.  “But stuff happens, like those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, the good and the bad huh?”

“Yeah, seems that way.” Elliott paused. “How are you doing there?”

“I guess okay, he died in his sleep, we’ve expected this for the last two years, I just didn’t expect it now.” I paused and as before Elliott let me do so without prattling on. “You know I prayed that he would go in his sleep at peace without anymore suffering but now that he has I am just…I don’t know, I didn’t expect it now.”

“Hang in there Padre; I’ve got to get busy before Dave thinks that I’m ignoring others, I’ll talk to you later.” A couple came walking down the steps looking for their seats and Elliott turned to great them. As he did I looked up at the sky, the clouds were building from the west and well, if you have ever lived where thunderstorms are a part of daily life you know what I mean when I say that you can smell the rain in the air or feel the storms building.

I went to my seat and as the grounds crew finished its work and the teams began to take the field I wondered if we would get the game in.  The young woman who would sing the National Anthem came out on the field and the PA announcer announced the Tides as they ran onto the field each accompanied by a young girl softball player about 6-9 years old.  Obviously the “Field of Dreams Team” was a girl’s softball team otherwise they would have been boys.  The young woman sang the Anthem and Chris George the Tides starter went into his final warm ups, just then the rain started and the home plate umpire signaled for the players to come off the field as thundered rumbled and lightening flashed nearby. I looked at my cell phone and looked up the weather channel whose radar show a very big blob of red coming our way. I left my seat and walked up to the concourse and not long after I did the heavens opened and the rains came down.  As I and most of the other fans took cover from the storm a finger tapped me on the shoulder.

“Padre, I knew that I would find you here.”

I looked up and it was Pete.

“I thought that the boss sent you out of town?”

“He did but he let me come back when your dad died.”

“Really, why?”

Pete put his hand on my shoulder “Padre the Boss had me come back because he knew that you’d listen to me.” He paused and looked me in the eye. “The boss was going to send Thomas because he wanted to send me on a road trip but when he actually called Carl home he realized that you really didn’t know Thomas, I mean Thomas is a good guy but…” I cut him off.

“But Skip knew that you were right for this.”

“Yeah, Tom’s good but you know me.”

“True.”

“And he likes wine better than beer” Pete chuckled “and even though he’s on the team he’d rather sit down in a nice restaurant and share a nice bottle of Merlot and eat cheese, Skip realized that I was the better choice.”

“Makes sense, Skip knows me pretty well huh?”

“All of us my friend, all of us, heck I remember meeting him for the first time when he called me, changed my name on the spot from Simon to Peter, the Rock.” He chuckled “sometimes I think that he thought the rocks were in my brain housing unit, the time I corrected him and he told me “get behind me Satan” my Lord that was not fun, I felt so foolish, but he didn’t chase me away.”

“Sometimes I feel pretty foolish Pete, I mean look at me, my dad is dead, I fly out to California tomorrow and I am standing in the concourse of a baseball park with rain coming down in buckets.” My sense of frustration and confusion was showing. “I mean Pete, what should I be doing? I really don’t know.” I shook my head and my eyes first moved to the ground and then looked back up at Pete. “I don’t know what to do Pete.”

“I know, and Skip knows, that’s why I’m here and not Tom. The fact is Steve you can’t do this alone, that’s why you’re here tonight; you need to be around this place, your friends and in a sense your dad. Your dad is here at least in spirit.”  Pete paused “Let’s get a beer and sit down out of the rain.” Pete walked me over to a stand on the first base side of the concourse where a vendor was selling Killian’s Irish Red. Pete looked at me and said “I’ll get it so put your wallet back.” Walking up to the stand he said “Sir, two Killian’s, make them large” and laid a twenty dollar bill on the stand. As the man reached to make change Pete said “keep the change my friend, tips might not be too good if this rain keeps coming down.”

The man behind the stand smiled as he finished pouring the second beer, “Thanks there buddy, you have a good night, thanks again” as he put the five dollars of change into his vest pocket.

“Let’s go over here Padre.” Pete led me to one of the tall round metal tables near the stand and put the beer to his lips. “Not bad, of course it isn’t named after Saint Killian, but we can pretend can’t we?”

“Always Pete”

“Cheers my friend, to Carl.”

“To dad” I replied as we lifted our cups.  The rain continued to beat down on the tarp spread across the field; I looked down at the display on my cell phone and noted the large amount of red, yellow and green on the Weather Channel, and I looked at Pete “looks like the rain isn’t going to let up for a while.”

“Well then let’s hang out for a while then.”  We’ve got a little bit of time, besides; you don’t want to get soaked on the way out to your car.”

“True, I am not a big fan of torrential rain.”

“You know that some of the good times early on came with the boss in the rain, well actually in the rain in little boats in raging storms.  I will never forget the time that he came walking across the water, shocked the heck out of me, enough to tell him that I wanted to do it too” Pete took a drink of his beer and laughed “I laugh about it now but when I saw those waves around me and realized that there was no boat under my feet I freaked out.  As I started to flail about and sink Skip walked over to me like he was on pavement reached down, grabbed my arm lifted me up and hauled my ass back in the boat. He then stilled the storm and the rest of the team; even guys like Judas had a laugh.” The rain was now coming down in sheets and with the exception of a couple of ushers and diehards everyone in attendance was on the concourse under cover or under the overhangs on the upper decks and the party deck.

“I’ve been through some storms at sea too”

“But you weren’t foolish enough to jump out of the boat.”

“Patently Pete, patently” I raised my cup “cheers Pete?”

“Cheers Padre” and Pete raised his cup to mine and each of us took another drink.

“So anyway, you wanted to talk to me.”

“Yeah, that.”

“So?”

“Well, last night I mentioned that you were in few a few changes or something like that before I left the park.”

“Okay, go on.”

“Well, that call from Skip, he kind of let me know that he was going to take Carl, your dad home.” Pete paused “And he kind of told me that he was going to send Tom as he had other work for me to do.”

“But that changed, you already told me that.”

“Yeah, yeah anyway, as I was saying, um where was I?”

“Changes and Skip telling you that he was taking my dad home” I paused and looked at Pete.

“Yeah, that let me continue.  You know that Skip liked your dad a lot, and I got to know your dad before you were even born, played some ball together on Guam.  I was on his team, I remember when he slid head first into second and broke his collar bone.”

“You’re kidding?”

“You dad was a young Petty Officer and a heck of a ballplayer, he was a solid hitter, knew where to hit the ball, aggressive on the base paths and good defensively at second base, sometimes all of us on the team would go out for a San Miguel after the game” and then paused for a drink and I took the opportunity to interrupt.

“What were you doing in Guam?”

“Come on Padre, what I’m doing here, Skip keeps us busy, that thing about “the great cloud of witnesses,” well some of us are more like low cloud cover or fog, a bit closer to the action than some of the others.” Pete laughed, “Skip likes us to be involved and I just happened to be in Guam when Carl was, it was totally coincidental.”

“Like the past two days?”

“No not at all, this was one of those God ordained things, you know Skip, when he wants something, well what can I say?”

“So you’re telling me that playing ball with my dad was coincidental and this was God ordained?”

“Yeah, so why can’t it be that way?”

“It just seems too coincidental to me Pete, I mean why this why me why now?” I was still in shock about dad’s death and though I knew that Pete was telling me the truth I didn’t really know how to react or what to say. I looked down at my beer and back up at Pete. “Pete I’m sorry I just don’t know what to say, I’m still in shock and kind of numb.”

There was an awkward silence and Pete reached out to me. “Padre, you needed to be out here tonight, you needed to hear this, it’s been so long with Carl not being himself with Alzheimer’s that you needed to remember that he was once young and enjoyed life, he loved you and your brother and your mom. He wasn’t perfect but there is a lot of him in you. He was proud of you and your brother and your families and I was glad to have known him back then.”

Though there were people all around us chatting and rain coming down mixed with thunder and flashes of lightening.  It had been nearly an hour since the rain began and it didn’t look like it would be letting up anytime soon as water began to puddle in the right field corner and other places in the outfield and warning track.  There was also water building up in my eyes, and I tried to be inconspicuous as I wiped away a tear.

“Padre, its okay, your dad died this morning.  It only happens once to most people and Carl was a good man, he’s getting a chance to hang out with Skip and well a lot of others, he’ll be fine.”

“So Skip really knew dad?”

“Still does, and I know that after Iraq you wondered if God existed and struggled with faith but when Skip said that he was with us and would never leave us or forsake us he meant it. He didn’t say that we wouldn’t have problems but he said that he would be there. Sometimes that’s hard to believe, I know I had a number of times where I doubted more than Tom ever did, thankfully Luke didn’t take the time to report all of those events.”

“Good thing I guess, better than these ballplayers, every error they make get’s published and recorded for posterity.”

“Good thing Padre, good thing, those statisticians would have been great sin counters in the Middle Ages, they would have known exactly the amount that you would need to pay to get your sins forgiven and an indulgence or two…I’m surprised that brother John Tetzel isn’t their patron saint.”

“So the reason that Skip sent me back is that he knew that you needed a bit of a pep talk and know that he really does care about you. He wants you to know that things will work out and to find a way to make sure that people remember your dad before Alzheimer’s took everything from him. Skip thinks that it will be good for them and you too.”

“But what?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Skip didn’t tell me. I guess that he will give you inspiration, he’s good at that you know.”

“Yeah, but until this inspiration comes I don’t know what the hell to do.”

The rain began to let up; I refreshed the Weather Channel and noticed more storms in the area.

“Pete, I have a long day tomorrow, I need to get home and pack, if this game does get going it will be close to midnight before it’s over and I’m still tired from yesterday. I’d better get out before the rain starts coming down again.” I finished the last bit of beer in my cup. “You will talk to me again?”

“Of course, I’ve been assigned your case.”

“Thanks for being here and thanks for the beer too, it tasted good.”

“Sure thing Padre, I’ll see you here again, maybe we’ll even find some way to get a game going, I think I can talk Dave into renting out the park for a day.”

 

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