The big tree and a jelly donut

“The men have come with their big machines to cut down the big tree on our street.  Should we go out to see them?”

My grandson claps his little hands together.  “Good!” he says.

I drape a scarf around my neck and slip my arms into my coat, then I hold his coat up for him.  “Push,” I say, and he pushes his little arms through the sleeves.  “Zip up!” I say, pulling the zipper up to his chin.  “Hold on to your hat, Harry!” I say, as I pull the woolen cap with the white letters over his head and tuck his ears underneath.

“Let’s go!” he says, racing to the door.  We step out onto the back stoop and make our way through the gate and down the driveway to the street.  Up ahead we can see the barricade and the orange sign announcing “Road Closed”.  The big trucks and the machines are parked bumper to bumper along the curb beyond.

I reach for my grandson’s hand and guide him across the street onto the grassy lot by the church.  We stand in the center of the expanse and look up the small rise to where the men are standing between the dump truck and the cherry picker.  A couple of them have sat down on the curb, hard hats in their laps, wiping their brows with their sleeves.  One tall man motions us closer.  “Does he want to see the trucks?” he asks.

“Trucks!” my grandson says, his eyes lighting up.

“He knows all their names,” I say, “dump truck, cherry picker, front loader, chipper.”

“Is your name Trouble?” one of the men asks, pointing with his chin to the letters on my grandson’s cap.

“Tell them: ‘Trouble’ is my middle name,” I say.

“Big truck!” my grandson says, pointing to the dump truck.

The men laugh.  “Come along, I’ll walk you two down past the vehicles to the end of the work zone,” the tall man says.

“Will you be taking down the other two trees as well?” I ask the man.

“No, we’ll do some heavy pruning on one and light pruning on the other.  They’ll have to come down eventually, but for right now they appear to be healthy — not like the one we took down yesterday.  A good portion of it had split off during that big wind storm we had last month.”

“Yes, we saw it lying in the street.  I tried to count the rings in the stump, but it’s so scarred and uneven.  How old do you figure it was?”

“Hard to say.  These trees were probably planted around the same time that the church was built — 1881 or thereabouts, somewhere around 140 years, give or take.  Maples usually last a century and a half, so that’s about right.”

“I guess everything has its allotted time,” I say.  “Just like us.”

The man looks off and nods his head.  “That’s right,” he says.  We walk past the barrier on the far end.  “I’m afraid you won’t be able to come back this way,” he says.  “We’ll be working again soon.”

“No problem. We can find our way back to the house around the block,” I say.

The man holds up his hand, smiles, and retraces his steps to the vehicles.  My grandson and I turn left at the corner and walk the short distance to the back of the church to see another dump truck parked in the lot.  I lift him up to see the inside of the bed.  Afterward, we walk back down to the corner to cross over to the sidewalk on the opposite side.

“Hey, Trouble!” a man’s voice booms from the work zone.  It’s the tall man again.  He approaches us with a shallow white box.  He holds it out and lifts the lid.  Two powdered jelly donuts sit nestled inside.  “Go ahead,” he says, “take one.”

My grandson looks up at the man, then he looks at me.  “It’s okay,” I say.  He reaches out his tiny hand and grabs one of the donuts.  “What do you say?” I ask him.

“Thank you,” he says.

The man smiles.  “The other one’s for you,” he says.

“Boy, oh boy,” I say, “this is our lucky day!”

The man nods his head and turns to go.  We look both ways for cars, then cross the street.  My grandson takes a small bite of his donut.  “How is it?” I ask.

“Good!” he says.

We walk down the street, eating our donuts.  “Look!” I say.  Parked in the lot outside the fire station sits a big yellow front loader.  “Come, let’s go see.”

Once more we cross the street.  The wheels on the front loader are big, about twice as high as my grandson.

“Big yellow machine!” he says, beaming as he stands in front of the big bucket, his small arm raised, half-eaten jelly donut in hand.

How does the moo cow go?

Now nearly fifteen months of age, my grandson adds new words to his vocabulary daily; his linguistic ability continues to blossom, each day filled with new surprising utterances.  Like most toddlers he has learned the names of several body parts.  When asked, he can point to his head, his hair, his eye, his ear, his nose, his tongue.  He also responds when questioned on animal sounds.  “How does the puppy dog go?” we ask. “Woof woof,” he says.  “How does the kitty cat go?”  “Meow,” he intones.  Although he has yet to learn how the moo cow goes, he readily imitates the mourning dove’s call:  “Ooh Ooh, Ooh; Ooh-ooh.”

Just his morning a colleague sent me the link to a NYT article — Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Days in Detention — that profiles a number of “illegal” immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border and whisked off to any one of a number of detention centers around the country.  Some youngsters have not seen their mothers in over forty days.

Life in these centers is highly regulated according to set routines.  Children undergo strict regimentation; even the very young are expected to perform daily work tasks.  Hugging or touching other children is forbidden.  In some instances children have awoken to find a friend gone, his whereabouts unknown.  One little girl has taken to writing her mother frequent letters, which she keeps until the day when they might be reunited; she is not allowed to mail them; and even if she could, she does not know her mother’s address.

The article also notes that children receive instruction in conversational English, as well as in American civics.  Perhaps they are also taught the democratic process, where legislation is enacted by representatives bought by special interest groups and subsequently signed into law by the President to ensure fairness and justice for all, regardless of race, creed or color.  As a boy I was taught that the marble statue of Justice bore a blindfold for a reason.

As I read through this article, I found myself wondering if these children might also be taught the words enshrined on a bronze plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

At one point the authors of the article note that the interior of one of the larger detention facilities has been subdivided to accommodate the juvenile residents.  Partitions fall short of the common ceiling overhead, so that sound readily travels from one section of the building to another.  Every so often a child will spontaneously emit a loud mooing sound, picked up and repeated by others throughout the building, the end effect being something analogous to a cacophonous echo, like that of a herd of cattle, penned in and lowing mournfully to one another.

It has been said that the moral conscience of a nation might be measured by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable citizens:  the aged, the infirm, its children.  As one who has made it his life’s work to care for the health and well-being of children, I have come to consider all children to be part of the family of man and citizens of the world order.

My grandson has yet to learn how the moo cow goes, but we’re working on it.  Meantime, when I ask him, he readily recites the lonesome echo of the mourning dove on cue.

The worst day of your life

“I suppose you’re going to tell me that this will be the worst day of my life?”

Coming from the mouth of a 10-year-old girl whose mother had just succumbed to an opiate overdose, the child’s words carried unspoken impact.

The priest who was telling me this story said he wasn’t sure how to respond.

This was back in the day when one of his duties was to serve as chaplain for the city fire department. The firemen would call him in on those sorts of impossible cases where no one had any idea what to do; cases like this one: a 10-year-old girl unexpectedly orphaned on the spot with no apparent next-of-kin.

By the time he arrived at the sparse apartment, other tenants in the public housing complex had started to filter in, each attempting in his or her own inept way to offer condolences and comfort.

“It was like something out of a Tennessee Williams play,” the priest said. “Everyone was concerned. No one knew what to do.”

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

Momentarily, the priest’s eyes regarded an infinite point in the distance; then he collected himself.

“I thought of all the bad things that this little girl would be facing in the coming hours, days, and weeks ahead. I thought of all the not-so-good things she might be facing for the remainder of her formative years, maybe even for the rest of her adult life.”

He lapsed into silence. Then the words came again. “Suddenly, I remembered that I had just lost my own mother. I knew how it felt. It felt like the worst day of my life. That gave me the courage to tell her: yes, this would be the worst day of her life; but there was always hope that somehow things would work out for the better.”

The hint of a tear glistened in the corner of his eye.

“Those are the ones that you always remember,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “They are.”

Sometimes in our struggle to care for others, we must first learn how to care for ourselves, how to lay down our own burdens. In facing our own suffering and accepting our own wounds, we learn how to help others heal.

Long day’s journey of the Saturday

At the beginning of this Easter weekend, I will leave my readers the thoughts of George Steiner from the concluding chapter of his book, Real Presences:

“There is one particular day in Western history about which neither historical record nor myth nor Scripture make report. It is a Saturday. And it has become the longest of days. We know of the Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well. This is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric of our personal lives. We know, ineluctably, of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate. We know also about Sunday. To the Christian, the day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death. If we are non-Christians or non-believers, we know of that Sunday in precisely analogous terms. We conceive of it as the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude. We look to resolutions, be they therapeutic or political, be they social or messianic. The lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope (there is no word less deconstructible).

“But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other. In the face of the torture of a child, of the death of love which is Friday, even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless. In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity. The apprehensions and figurations in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and of hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?”

Dinner break

“I’m heading down to the cafeteria for dinner,” I said.

The charge nurse looked up from the central desk. “Go ahead. We’re good for now.”

I padded down the hallway to the end of the ward, touched the square steel plate on the wall, walked through the open doors and caught the elevator to the ground floor.

The serving line was still open. I picked up a tray, made my selections, paid the cashier and sat down at one of the empty tables along the far wall. There were plenty of vacant seats to choose from.

Methodically, I began to eat. It had been a long afternoon, looking in on the patients on the ward, talking with concerned parents, answering pages from the ED, reviewing labs and x-rays in radiology on the third floor. I was glad for my dinner break, glad for a few moments of down time, glad for the chance to put something in my stomach.

“Mind if I join you?” I looked up at the bald-headed bearded face and motioned for him to sit down. He slid his tray onto the table and pulled out the chair. “You on for the duration?” he asked, reaching for his napkin.

“Until tomorrow morning,” I said. “Twenty-four hour shift.”

“Sometimes Sundays are quiet,” he said.

“You never know,” I smiled.

“You never do,” he said.

We ate in silence. Then he said, “You’re covering pediatrics?” I nodded. “I thought I saw you earlier in the ED.”

“I’ve been around the block a few times since the morning.”

“Haven’t we all,” he said. I noticed the name embroidered in red over the breast pocket on his white coat. “Had a gunshot wound come in mid afternoon,” he said. “Self inflicted.”

I pushed the mashed potatoes around on the plate with my fork. “Did he make it?”

“If you want to call it that,” he said. He held his fork suspended by his side and raised the index finger of his left hand to the side of his head. “Amateurs,” he said. “They don’t know anatomy.”

I lifted a forkful of food to my mouth and chewed slowly.

“The bullet entered the cranium at a shallow angle,” he said. “Spun around the inside of his head like a marble on a roulette wheel. Homogenized his grey matter like whipped jelly. Left the brainstem intact. Not much to do for that.”

I swallowed the potatoes and waited.

“I expect he’s gone by now,” the bald-headed bearded man said. “At least, I hope so.”

Suddenly, the quiet was broken: my pager went off. I pushed the button to silence the noise, read the extension and rose from the table. “Gotta go,” I said.

He raised a silent hand, as though he were offering a blessing. “Hope the rest of your night is quiet,” he said.

For some inexplicable reason, it was.

An accent of local color

I was bending down to bag a pile of dog dirt when Dennis lifted his hand in greeting as he drove by in his big white truck with the backhoe logo on the side panel.

Further along, I noticed the white truck parked by the curb near the old post office. As Daisy and I crossed the village green, Dennis came out of the package store with a number of lotto tickets in his hand.

“I saw you pickin’ up your dog’s shit,” Dennis said. “That’s good to see. So many folks don’t bother. There’s piles of dog shit along the sidewalks all over town. There used to be piles of dog shit in the cemetery, too. Father Flower put a stop to that. You remember Father Flower? ‘Dennis,’ he’d say, ‘you see any people in the cemetery with their dogs, tell ’em to pick up their dogs’ shit and vamoose.’ People ought to know better.”

“Yes, indeed,” I said.

“I take care of the cemetery,” Dennis continued. “I cut the grass in summer, blow the leaves in fall, plow the driveways in winter. I put up a memorial wreath down there this afternoon — donated it with my own money.”

“That was good of you,” I said.

“Paul Duclos used to drive down every day to check on the flag, make sure it wasn’t tethered on the pole. If it was torn, he’d replace it with a new one. Never asked anyone for a dime neither. Now he’s gone, I figure someone ought to tend to it.”

“When did he pass away?”

“Couple of years ago,” Dennis said. He looked off into the distance. You could tell that his salt and pepper beard hadn’t been trimmed in months. “I saw him mowin’ his lawn late one Sunday afternoon. He looked white as a sheet. ‘What’re doing mowin’ the grass on a Sunday?’ I asked him. He said he figured he ought to cut it one last time. Next day I heard he died.”

Daisy jumped up and put her paws on Dennis’s work pants. “Upsidaisy,” Dennis said. He ran a rough hand along the dog’s head.

“My brother had a dog once,” he continued. “Nice Shepherd, got him when he was a puppy, big floppy paws,” he chuckled. “At the time my brother was livin’ in a farmhouse up in Suffield.”

“One day he come home and saw a thread through the high grass in the field behind the house. The thread led through the field over to the neighbor’s place. The neighbor’s lawn mower was sittin’ in my brother’s back yard. The dog was sittin’ beside the lawn mower.”

“Sometime after that, this dog took to trottin’ across the road to the farmhouse on the other side. He’d come home with a rake in his mouth. Next thing you know, he’d show up with a shovel. Eventually, the dog stole nearly every implement that neighbor owned.”

“That dog was so smart, he’d fetch a shovel from the back of a pickup truck on command.”

Dennis climbed up into the cab of the big white truck. He laid the lotto tickets on the seat beside him and coaxed a cigarette from the pack with his teeth. He hit the ignition, lifted his hand in farewell and pulled away from the curb.

Daisy and I watched the old white truck rattle down the street and disappear around the corner.

“Well, Daisy,” I said, “despite it being December, it’s nice to see that there’s still a bit of local color in the neighborhood.”

Down on my knees

Down on my knees
Sanding and wiping
The hard wooden porch deck
Preparing to lay a coat
Of stain
On this clear morning
After rain
A bleating of geese
Breaks through.
I pause, sit back on my haunches,
Careen my neck
To glimpse the V-formation
As they sweep overhead.
Had they heard my prayer,
If indeed I were praying?
No matter.
Grace is grace,
Wherever found.

2017©Brian T. Maurer