An Ordinary Tree
I was in the stands at Turner Field in 1998 when Atlanta Braves pitcher Mark Wohlers tried to become a pitcher again. He had been an outstanding closer for the Braves and was pitching when they made the final out against Cleveland to win the 1995 World Series. (In 1991, he and two other Braves pitchers accomplished a no-hit game. It is not in the record books as a no-hitter because that requires only one pitcher the whole game.) In ’98, however, something happened mentally, and he lost control of his pitches. He wasn’t simply wild. Many pitches hit the ground a little over halfway to home plate. The Braves sent him to the minor leagues for a while, hoping he would find his control. I was at the game when he returned to the majors for the first time since being sent down, and we cheered wildly for him when he entered the game, trying to will him to throw good pitches via our noise and enthusiasm. Alas, he again threw the ball into the ground. We ached for him. I assumed he felt terribly embarrassed and frustrated. He was an accomplished athlete whose body was as capable as ever, but whose mind failed him—in front of thousands of expectant, hopeful fans.
Perhaps, on the way to the mound, he confidently assured himself that he was capable, that he had done it before, that if he relaxed, he could do it again. Something like that—a positive-attitude mantra. It must have seemed so doable, and for us spectators it was a painful spectacle. Failing privately is tough—publicly must be demoralizing.
Now I know something of what he felt.
On a Sunday late last year, I had a small assignment in church: for two minutes say some words of gratitude for an interim minister whose term had ended, and who had been a good influence on my teenage daughter. I have preached and given speeches many times, beginning with my first sermon as a 17-year-old, and I am considered a good speaker. I’m always a little nervous before speaking, but not debilitatingly so; it’s the kind of nervousness that keeps a speaker alert. When I saw on the order of service that three youth would be baptized that morning, I thought I might be in trouble, but I remained calm. As I strode to the pulpit (perhaps like Wohlers) I said to myself, “You can do this, you can do this, you can do this. It’s a mere page and a half.” I breathed deeply, relaxed, thought positive thoughts.
My mantra was not to convince myself that I could give a talk—I can do that—but that I could speak without sobbing uncontrollably. And I failed. In front of everybody.
I’ve always been fairly open with my emotions, but since I became a father, I sometimes weep with little provocation. On a recent Friday, I wept twice in the same day. First, when I read the following poem by Mary Oliver:
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
I read this poem early, before I got out of bed. It was sent to me via email by Inward/Outward, a daily reflection service of The Church of the Savior in Washington, DC (inwardoutward.org). The line, “I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance,” touched me with its implication that sitting and reflecting can be a rich and exciting experience, even if from a passerby’s perspective one is doing nothing. The last stanza then knocked me over with its evocation of the sacred and the image of entering a door to a temple while being still—again, seemingly doing nothing.
I lay in bed after I read it and felt my eyes well up, perhaps out of envy that I no longer use most of my time writing, or perhaps out of joy for Mary Oliver (who gets to do what I envy), and out of gratitude that her “flying low” moved me so. We live a thousand miles apart, yet I sensed her in her place and felt my emotions connected to hers. That’s plenty to make me cry.
I wept again at about 7:25 that morning when my daughter exited my car to go to school, took a couple of steps, turned back towards me, and waved good-bye. That’s all. On the drive to school, I had removed my stud earring from my pants pocket, placed it in the cupholder between our seats, and said, “Now I’ll be ready to put it in when I get off work this afternoon.” I don’t wear my earring at work but usually do on weekends, and come 5:00 Friday I’m ready to become Jerry-who-sports-an-earring.
My daughter chuckled and said, “Oh my gosh, Dad, you are so….my Dad.”
That exchange is the most precious thing on earth. Maybe I exaggerate out of doting-daddy-ness, but doesn’t every parent cherish those moments—sometimes a tiny almost unnoticed moment— when the parent-child relationship is sensed so fully. In that little exchange, I relived—in a flash—every significant moment of my life as her Dad. She revealed the web of entanglement that is our relationship—the ways I have shaped her and the ways she has shaped me. I knew that she knew a bond had been formed—and is still being formed—between us that is beautiful and established, yet also being re-created each time we interact. So, of course, I wept.
(Before I became a Dad, I would have considered the preceding paragraph a pile of sentimental mush. Maybe you do. That’s fine.)
Before I became a Dad, I was irritated by parents who acted as if the specialness of their special tike was somehow extra special, beyond and above the specialness of everyone else’s. Now I’m one of those people.
The first time I wept in the pulpit, I knew it would happen and simply made it part of the sermon. The lectionary included a verse about us being adopted by God, so I told the story of adopting our daughter, which included some heartache as well as joy. I used that story to explain how much God loves us. I announced at the beginning of the sermon that I would cry most of my way through it and asked for patience. I asked for some supportive vocal response from the congregation, and they did well (for a mostly white church). The story is emotionally charged and deeply meaningful to me. I didn’t feel embarrassed that time because I expected it to happen, and I asked the congregation to indulge me.
After it was over, I thought, OK, I got that out of the way, and now I can be a normal person and complete sentences without falling apart. I thought that was that.
But then things got out of hand. In certain situations, I couldn’t not cry, no matter how hard I tried. I preached a sermon about lessons I had learned as a hospice chaplain, and I thought: Jerry, this one is about death, for goodness’ sake (and not about the death of anyone close to me). It’s about work, not family, certainly not about my daughter. It didn’t matter. I didn’t weep all the way through it, but still I sobbed. Another time I preached about God wanting us to appreciate the physical world God created (beauty, food, sounds, etc.), and I told the story of seeing a curled magnolia leaf pooled with water, reflecting the sky and clouds and trees. I said I posted the picture on Facebook, and a friend in another state, Holli Rainwater, wrote a beautiful haiku about it. I couldn’t help but weep as I told that story. The way that leaf connected me to a friend I haven’t seen in years via poetry was emotionally moving. That was a sacred, inspired moment.
Kate Hauk, a friend whose teenage son died years ago, asked me to read a poem I wrote about his memorial service during a church service about grief, and I knew that was risky, but it’s a short poem, and I love Kate, so I gave it a shot. I barely made it through it through my sobs. (I did read the same poem at a 100th anniversary celebration of our church without sobbing—a rare feat.)
Don’t join me to watch a movie about a girl who overcomes the odds unless you want to hear me bawl. “Whale Rider.” “Akeelah and the Bee.” I have seen those several times, and I cry the same every time. (Ask my embarrassed daughter.)
My Dad rarely showed emotion. Once when I came home from seminary to visit, he welcomed me at his house with, “I won’t hug you, but I’ll shake your hand.” Don’t judge; that was just him. He loved me as much as any other father loves a son. Blame it on his generation of workaholic, grin-and-bear-it men, or whatever, but that’s the way he was. (We all have our ways.) If he felt an urge to cry in public, he could pause and halt it, then proceed—smooth and easy.
A couple of years before he died, he had a stroke and, like many stroke sufferers, lost some internal filters when his brain was damaged. He began crying over little things. Once I brought my portable CD player to his nursing home room and played some traditional hymns, and he wept. When he spoke affectionately to his children, he often cried. His mind was still good enough that he knew what was going on. “I don’t like it, but I can’t help it,” he told me once, after a good cry.
Did my becoming a Dad remove one of my filters? (Is having a child like having brain damage?) I cried recently during a wonderful sermon by one of my pastors, Melanie Vaughn-West. I emailed her about this and added that I also wept during the words of appreciation for our outgoing Properties Caretaker, so, I said, “take it for what it’s worth.” Twice recently, I had to leave the worship service early to sit in a Sunday School class and sob. Loud.
Someone suggested I have “unresolved grief.” (Which, by the way, I call “grief.” It never goes completely away.) There is one hole in my heart that I feel strongly every July 18, the birthday of the little boy that we almost adopted. We were present, and helped a little, at his delivery from his birth mother, and we held him dearly for hours, and the next day she changed her mind and kept him. That experience tore my heart out, but, as is often the case with sorrow, it prepared us for something beautiful, in this case our daughter’s arrival.
I was caught off guard by the sitcom “Modern Family” when Mitch and Cam came close to adopting a baby and when it became clear something was amiss, I expected light humor as everything worked out fine for them. But at the last moment the baby’s grandmother intervened and insisted they keep it. Oh boy. I didn’t just weep; I wailed. This was a good fourteen years after our loss.
Our near-adoption hurt, but I am surrounded by people with losses just as painful and more—much more—so I am not uniquely or severely aggrieved. I have heard failed adoption stories much worse than ours. I don’t have an especially pity-worthy grief. In a way, I feel grateful that I got to experience the profound love of a tiny, tender human, even if only briefly, and I’m a better person for having given my heart so fully over to that boy. Wherever he is, he took a little of my heart with him. I feel the loss every year on his birthday, but I have no regret for having taken the risk of loving him prematurely and for having felt that joy, even if it was yanked away.
Or maybe I have let the whole adoption experience convince me, falsely, that adoption is more special than conceiving one’s own child. I know how ludicrous that thought is. I have a hunch that most parents think their way of getting a child—whatever it is—is deeply significant, each time it happens. And I’m no different. When I think of the decisions and actions that came together just right for Jacy to reach our home—conception by a girl ill prepared to rear a child, she and her parents finding our (not another) adoption attorney, our portfolio somehow appealing to them when we were not that much younger than her parents—I feel grateful and lucky.
During the brief talk I gave at church that I first mentioned, the one about an outgoing interim minister, when I began sobbing and could barely continue, a therapist friend, Tere Canzoneri, got up from her seat in the choir and stood next to me. She placed her hand on my stomach and said, “I’m going to center you, so you can talk.” I was able to finish, though in my haste to go hide somewhere I skipped a couple of things. I left the service early and retreated to my car, avoiding everyone I could. I then decided to take a sabbatical from speaking in front of the church. It was too embarrassing. I’ve been asked a couple of times for brief remarks, and I have declined. I need to think this over for a while.
I don’t consider crying to be a sign of weakness. I’m not trying to get attention (although I like attention). I don’t mind crying in public, particularly at my church, which is a remarkably supportive and empathetic congregation. But I need a break.
Being a Dad at my church has, apparently, opened up the tears spigot. I feel profound gratitude, particularly as I look around and think of all the people who love my daughter. (You thought I was finished with Daddy-cheesiness?)I see nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, choir leaders, youth leaders, ministers, and people who simply say hello. My church, Oakhurst Baptist, is, I’m sure, no more loving than most any other, but that’s where I am. I see a place where my daughter is nurtured and allowed to express herself. She is taught God loves her and that she should love others.
That is fairly simple and commonplace. Millions and millions can say the same thing. So I’m not claiming a superior set of relationships at my church. What I am saying is that, for whatever reasons, in the last several years I have felt an especially strong sense of that set of relationships, a welcoming into my heart of that nexus of love, acceptance, and communal influence on my daughter (and on me). As I gaze upon that reality, my vision has been sharpened and focused. My heart is extra-sensitive to experiencing the feelings that this vision creates.
Once I was walking through Muir Woods, a small patch of redwoods near San Francisco popular with tourists, and was stopped cold by a narrow stream of sunlight that found its way through the thick tree canopy above and encircled a small tree between two walkways. The small tree was surrounded by a soft golden glow, like an exquisite necklace in a jewelry store display. It was as though the heavens had said:
“I want to spotlight that tree so that these people passing by will not miss it, so I am going to put the sun right here and angle it just so. There, I am shining my light between those two giant redwoods in that little bit of open space, just above another tree and right through there.”
The spotlighted tree, mind you, was not a spectacular tree, but I stopped and stared intently, lingering, full of joy, and took in everything as if it were the first tree I had ever seen. I looked up at the redwoods, at the small opening where the sunlight graced us, at the glistening dust particles floating in the light, at the small plants around the tree. Ordinary plants. The soil. Moss. Other than the towering redwoods, everything was ordinary, but I stood there enraptured, intensely feeling the presence of this scene. It was a sacred, emotional, inspiring moment. I simply gazed, welcoming this gust of grace into my soul.
Similarly, my story of becoming a Dad is not spectacular or any more special than anyone else’s. But my emotional receptivity to that experience is heightened, at least for now. The scenes, the people, the relationships, the telling of dad-daughter stories to my friends, seeing a friend greet my daughter across the room, a teacher welcoming her at school, my recalling something from ten years ago—all are commonplace. But for whatever reason, I am receiving and welcoming them in the intense manner that I stared at that scene in Muir Woods.
So don’t pity me. Join me in seeing and feeling.