Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
My wife’s grandfather died Wednesday. I’ve watched her say goodbye to him slowly for the last three years. Several nights before he passed, the hospice nurse reported hearing a soft voice singing throughout the night. The nurse shared the story with Frank’s wife, Millie, the next morning. Millie put in a CD that the nurse agreed matched the angelic voice. It was a song about being called home to heaven. On Tuesday, Millie had her own vision of Frank. He laughed like a child as he reunited with his sister. Coincidental or not, I need stories like these to keep my hope alive.
Two years ago I wrote this blog, but I did not post it. The time was not right. It is now.
— Knives and Dolls—
“My dad will probably try to give you a knife,” my father in law told me.
We stepped into my wife’s grandparent’s house, and the smell of dust and seventy years in the carpet hit me. I carried the diaper bag on one shoulder, a camera bag on the other, and a baby in my arms. It occurred to me that ninety years separated three of the room’s inhabitants. Shannon’s grandparents, Millie and Frank, lit up upon our twin girls’ entrance.
Frank spends twenty hours a day confined to a hospital bed that takes up half of the living room. On this particular day, he sat in his electronic chair wearing only a shirt. A towel draped over his lower half. When he drifted off to sleep, the towel would slip, and Millie would yell, “Hey Frank, do we need to put you back in the bed?”
“Nah, Millie, I’m fine,” replied Frank’s gentle voice.
It would be easy to overlook Frank. Most days he sits quietly as his wife entertains a constant flow of friends. Their house is a revolving door. If I talk to Frank, he’ll inevitably tell me about the day he encountered a hornet nest forty feet up in a tree. He fell; he anticipated a paratrooper’s landing but instead broke his hip and injured his spine at a life altering angle. Or he will pour out his guilt about the day he should have died. His World War II plane crashed the day he took off to go buy some shoes. If you talk to someone else about him, they’ll inevitably tell you about his tender heart, honesty, and prayerful, hard-working devotion. They will tell you how much he loved his wife. “You’ll never meet a better man,” they will say.
He told Millie to hand me his leather pouch of pocket knives, and I unbound the leather straps and rolled out the assortment of antique pocket knives, all dated by the extent of their rust. Staring at the collection, I wondered if General Patton had ever given away his medals.
“Summer, look at the doll.” My attention shifted.
Millie had set one of her dolls on the coffee table in front of my daughter who stood propping herself up, transfixed on the face before her. Summer and dolls had become the family’s fascination. Earlier in the week, I woke her from a nap and took her into Shannon’s childhood room. We stood at the dresser where four Madame Alexander china dolls returned our gaze. Summer reached her hand to pet their hair and faces with her tiny hand. She blabbered and conversed with the silent statues. We smiled and laughed as she crawled over to different dolls that sat around each room. Her pudgy legs caught in her dress along the way. Earlier in the week, her first word had rolled off her tongue, a definite “Da” concluded with something of an “L” sound. She repeated it again as she stared into her great-grandmother’s treasured doll.
I directed my attention back to the knives before me. Boyhood flashed before my eyes. There was always something about a knife. If I discount a plastic Play-Doh contraption, my first genuine pocket knife was a little red Swiss Army, complete with blade, scissors, nail file, tweezers, and tooth pick. I was MacGyver, empowered with the strength to escape any jam with the contents below the sink and Little Red in my pocket. I was my grandfather, constructing and creating in his workshop. His Swiss Army knife smelled of sweat and fresh cut wood. Mine probably smelled like dreams or new shoes. For me, the scissors and file were great: they offered the ability to open fruit roll-ups and rescue ten year old damsels with chipped nails. But, it was the knife that made me potent.
Frank’s knives lay before me like trophies, prizes that I kept reminding myself not to take through airport security. Each trophy told a story. I would eventually choose a knife that represented some deep cavern in Frank’s heart, a man that holds the admiration of an entire family. At one time his far-less wrinkled hands used this knife like his son uses a golf club and like I use this keyboard. Frank’s passions will one day lead him to construct a garden in heaven that surpasses the beauty of Nebuchadnezzar II’s. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called the Hanging Gardens of Babylon one of the Seven Wonders of the World. If Herodotus had had the vision and ability to peer into the future, I imagine he would have claimed Frank’s character as the eighth.
Maren darted across the floor, and I jumped up to redirect her from the catheter by Grandpa’s bedside.
I resolved that I could not concentrate on both the rugrats and the blades. In the midst of this dilemma, though, I took in the passage of masculinity and femininity in the form of knives and dolls. When my girls look into the eyes of these dolls, something transcendent moves into them, not from the antique, but from their great-grandmother’s heart. The same happened for me as I took Frank’s knife. We are the recipients of stories that began long before us. We swim in the stream of strength, beauty, and love that flow through Frank and Millie. May we live lives worthy of such an inheritance.
I used to do push-ups to the 1984 Footloose soundtrack, specifically “Holding Out for a Hero”. Just before bed, I threw the cassette in my Walkman and let the dreams flow of buzzer beater three-pointers and entire high school gymnasiums chanting my name. Last week my hard work paid off, and my dreams came true. An entire gym echoed with repeated chants and cheers of my name. Except this wasn’t the state championship; it was musical chairs. For my brief fifteen minutes, though, I felt like a hero.
My wife shared with me the new Footloose’s version of “Holding Out for a Hero”. Lose the 80’s beat and hair spray and add a haunting, slower, country twang and some background crickets and you have the new version. It would never make it on my workout playlist, but it still calls to that same deep place within me.
I write the following on behalf of my gender. It’s unsolicited of course- we’re not the best at admitting our neediness.
Ladies, we need to know: Are we your hero? We really do crave the answer, but we’re afraid to ask. Afraid that the answer will sadly declare that we miss the mark. I don’t know of a man that doesn’t have a poor self-image. I listen to the lyrics:
“I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong, he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
…He’s gotta be sure, he’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life”
The depths of me stir. I want to be so strong and sure. And whether I’m coming home from a fight, singing my girls to sleep, or taking out the trash, I need my wife to believe that I’m a prizefighter.
I think of Ephesians 5:33 when Paul says, “… the wife must respect her husband.” I know, I used one of those marriage verses. This conversation too often breaks down when words like “respect” and “submit” are used. Let me simplify things: Ladies, we don’t need you to follow our commands. We don’t want you to let us dominate dialogues or make rules for you. Rather we need you to see and appreciate the wars we fight, the blood we spill, and the pain and disappointment that become our shadow every day. Certainly this reverence must be earned. But when a husband’s love for his wife even somewhat reflects Christ’s for the church, the natural response is utter respect. Although Paul’s words instruct, they also reveal a man’s desire. While God is the ultimate answer on who I am as a man, and it’s men that teach me how to be a man, I cannot overstate the power my wife has to praise me as a man.
We need to know, ladies. Don’t tell us unless you mean it; we know when you’re not sincere. Are we your hero?
Check out Ella Mae Bowen’s “Holding Out for a Hero”. The lyrics haven’t changed since 1984, and neither has the masculine heart.
Black stains adorn my hands as I type. No metaphor there. I pulled into Panera this morning on my way to my first class of the semester: Marital Life Cycle. I sat down with my coffee and pulled out my journal. Forty-five uninterrupted minutes to eat, pray, and love pray, think, and write. Did I mention that snowflakes fell softly on the other side of the window? For a second I almost thought I was in Colorado. I wrote my first sentence and then noticed a large black ink blot on the adjacent page. Must be a Barnes & Nobles factory defect. But it was still wet. I inspected my pen to find it was leaking ink around the tip. As I used my napkin to clean it off, I saw the black droplets on the table. I wiped those clean only to notice more splotches on the back side of my left hand. Then my right. You get the idea. My pen, bleeding from both ends, made a mess of me and my morning plan.
As I threw away seventeen stained napkins, I couldn’t escape the thought that my class on marriage had begun prematurely. Doesn’t marriage get all over us? Once we realize that indeed it is leaving its mark, and the harder we try to halt its progress, the more ink we discover in other places.
We say “I do” and rush off to the honeymoon with the hope that we can check our baggage on the departing flight and leave it there indefinitely. For most, the difficulties of marriage come as a shock. I know of a renowned counselor that declines all requests to conduct pre-marital counseling because the real work must be done once the fan is dirty. But even those that enter this sacred covenant with an appropriate expectation don’t have a prayer to keep the ink off. I was one of these. I recall sharing some struggles with a mentor one month into my married life. With the wisdom of a Jedi master, he sighed and said, “Just wait until you’ve walked through ten years of this.” I didn’t like hearing that. I already knew marriage would be an eternal boot camp. Didn’t I belong to the club yet? I’d paid my dues.
As I look back, I realize that I knew and didn’t know at the same time. I could sensibly assess why marriage would try my patience and ability to love like nothing ever would, but I lacked the wisdom that can only come with experience. I wouldn’t dare claim to know what war is like, but I would wager to bet that no amount of training prepares a soldier for combat. And no soldier returns home unchanged.
For better and worse, we’re marked.