Too Tired to Rest

too-tired-to-restThe reel of unseen dreams flickers her eyelids as the man who has slipped into her room watches. A crescent smile glides across his face like a canoe trailed by ripples of worry. Deep within her consciousness, she senses his presence, and the blue eyes marred by clouds of age slowly open.

“Hello, Grandma.”

One, two, three seconds pass as recognition surfaces. Her face, soft as worn flannel, bunches around her eyes and mouth.

“Hello, Freddy.”

Her equally soft hand pats his sandpaper chin.

“I know I haven’t been to visit you as often as I should, but…”

“No apologies, sweet boy. You’re here now.”

“I came to spend Shabbat with you, Gram.”

The old soul leans forward in her bed, peers out the window.

“Seems a little early yet,” she says.

“Well, Mom says you’re asleep by seven, and the summer sun sets so late.”

“Cheeky devil,” she chuckles, again patting his face. “Go ahead and light the candles. Fetch my shawl from the drawer—no, that one, Freddy, the next one down—and I’ll say the blessing.”

Fred complies with her request, draping dark blue silk around her head and shoulders. Daylight blasts hot and bright through the windows of her room in the nursing home; her white crowned head swathed in navy gives the appearance of the moon in the night sky. He lights two candles in cut glass holders, and the sun withdraws its spears behind linty clouds.

Elsa Cohen breaths as deeply as her ravaged lungs will allow; she wheezes like a broken bellows, drawing withered hands above the dancing flames, the ancient prayer she recites flowing like new wine. When she finishes, she looks up into her grandson’s drum-tight face.

“Why so troubled, Freddy?”

“I don’t know, Gram. I’ve been feeling kind of…melancholy lately?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Well, no.”

Elsa pushes the shawl off her head, smooths the fabric around her shoulders.

“It’s just that, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat lately either, Gram.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“No, that’s just what people say when they’re giving you time to collect your thoughts and tell what’s on your mind. Spill it, Freddy.”

“Oh…uh, well, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat because…because it’s really hard to do in today’s society, you know? I mean, living in America and all, well, people don’t stop, like, working and stuff at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday.”

“Oh gosh, people don’t even stop on Sunday anymore either.”

“That’s true.”

“I remember when you were little that gas stations and stores were closed on Sunday, and all the good people went to church, and everyone rested.”

“We live in a ‘round the clock kind of world these days, Gram.”

“That we do. How’s that working for you, Freddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you visited three months ago—”

“Ouch.”

Elsa waves him to silence.

“You said you and Margaret were so exhausted with long hours at work, running errands, shuttling the kids from here to there.”

“Well, I don’t see how taking a whole day off to do nothing is going to help any of that, Gram. Wouldn’t that just put us more behind?”

“Do more on the other six days. Totally run yourself into the ground. Or you could save up all your Shabbats until retirement and lay around doing nothing for ten years.”

“Gram, be serious.”

The old woman chuckles until she coughs. Fred leans her forward and delivers firm pats to her back. Her nightgown is a floral landscape across the sharp ridges of her shoulders. Once settled against her pillows, she continues.

“You have to decide for yourself, Freddy, why you do or don’t do these things.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what to do?”

“What fun would there be in that? Besides, there’s no guarantee you’d do it just because I say so.”

“It was so much easier when Grandpa was alive. We all met for dinner at your house and followed his lead.”

“Fredrick—Shabbat hasn’t gone by the wayside just because your grandfather died. Everything that is good about it is still with us. My goodness, dear boy, for one so educated, you sure are stupid.”

Fred can’t keep from laughing at his little grandmother’s spoon-blunt words cutting him sharply.

“Okay, Gram, I get it.”

“Are you sure? Because I could spell it out for you. Use pictures and small words.”

He kisses her forehead like she is his child.

“I love you, Gram.”

“I know, Freddy. Now take that box of candy over there your mother sent me—she knows I can’t chew caramel and nuts anymore—and go home to your family. Rest, my boy.”

Elsa snuggles into the blankets her grandson pulls up over her chin. Her eyes flicker as the dream scenes resume, and she is asleep before he crosses the room to leave.

Being Strong for Melinda

trial-or-tribulationSharon and Robert have spent many dark and lonely hours, separated from each other, asking for the things they believed were right and good. Too many times they listened to doctors whose explanations left them staring and openmouthed, their minds weighted down with things they struggled to comprehend.

Endless dashes to the hospital turned into a permanent stay for their only child. She looks like a little caterpillar cocooned in blankets, bandages, and wires from a host of monitors. Robert calls her his baby bug waiting to emerge with new wings.

Prayer requests make the round on social media. Praise reports are given when their daughter rallies. Many drop off when her condition lags. The weak and faithless have no explanation for this decline. They cannot explain why they couldn’t get Melinda healed, make excuses for God as if He needed them. All of it wears on Sharon and Robert until they pray for release for their beloved child because that must be what God wants for her, right?

With heavy hearts, tears amassing in their eyes, they claim they are willing to accept this for their baby girl. Each buries a duplicitous heart beneath stoic faces and solemn nods of the head. They just want to quit, for this to be over. They never speak of it anymore. In fact, they’ve stopped talking to each other at all. The constant company of the Women’s Bible Study Group and Men’s Fellowship doesn’t allow for much private conversation between them. Such good people, these men and women, who stay with Sharon and Robert 24/7, praying audibly non-stop.

Sharon slips away to the ladies’ room. She does not turn on the light, locks the door. The sound of breathing in the dark room scares her for a second, but whatever harm might be done to her by the owner of the breathing is preferable to what is going on with Melinda. Especially if it ends her.

“Sharon?”

She jumps and laughs wildly.

“Robert? What on earth are you doing in the ladies’ room?”

“It’s the only place the guys from church wouldn’t think to look for me.”

More deranged laughter, shared, from the emotionally and physically drained parents. Robert sighs but does not reach for his wife. Neither move to turn on the light.

“I’m so tired, Shar.”

“You, too?”

Robert’s voice dips and rises uncontrollably.

“I just want this…I just want…”

“I know, dear. Me, too.”

Their hands meet in the darkness, instinct guiding their palms and fingers into place. But they do not draw closer to each other.

“I want to quit, Shar. No—I have to quit. I’m done. I’m finished, and I got nothing left.” He pauses to draw a deep breath. “I was in here working up the nerve to tell you.”

“Rob, that’s why I came in here.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“When, Robert? Between entertaining and performing for the people from church—God knows I love them, but I really just need them to go home—to holding in my emotions every time the doctors tell us Melinda isn’t progressing as they’d hoped? You won’t even meet my eyes anymore.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I was afraid if I looked at you, you’d see how scared I am—”

“—I’m scared, too—”

“—but I don’t have any answers for you, Shar. You know, I’m supposed to be the strong one and all that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, honey. I never expected solutions to this. Not from you, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“Is it? Because we’re off the hook, but I suspect we wanted our prayers answered in a specific way we’re too afraid to admit.”

“Can I turn on the light?”

Robert flips the switch before she consents setting off a round of watery-eyed blinking.

“Well, that’s better,” he jokes.

They step closer and melt into an embrace. Sharon cries against his shoulder as he runs his hand over her hair.

“I’m not really okay with losing Melinda,” his wife says.

“I know.”

“I feel so guilty for saying that. Like I’m less of a…”

“I understand, Shar. Really, I do.”

“So, now what?”

“Now we quit pretending. We’ve got to.”

“Agreed.”

“And if Melinda…if she…”

“Dies.”

“Yes, if…then we’ll figure it out together. Just the two of us.”

“But it doesn’t have to be just you and me, Rob.”

“I know. I meant all the church crowd.”

“They mean well—and quite a few have been helpful. Sincere.”

“That’s true. But when this is over, whatever over may be, it’s just you and me, and you and God, and me and God to work through this.”

It’s Sharon’s turn to sigh.

“Is this where we were supposed to be all along, Rob?”

“You mean if we hadn’t let all the hoopla get in our way?”

“Yes,” she chuckles. “Just trusting. Shutting up and trusting that God’s got this under control.”

“That’s a hard and scary place to be.”

Sharon nods and leans her forehead against Robert’s.

“I can’t promise I won’t be sad,” he whispers.

“You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. Just don’t be afraid.”

“I’ll try, Shar. For you.”

“No, babe. For you.”

All the prayers they cannot speak radiate between them. A knock on the restroom door precedes, “Sharon—come quick. The doctors have been looking all over for you. Sharon?”

Melinda’s parents, raw and exposed, striped down to the soul, brace each other with hands to the shoulders.

“I don’t know where they are,” says the muffled voice on the other side of the door.

“Well we have to find them now. They need to know Melinda has opened her eyes and asked for them,” a male voice joins in.

Gasps of shock from the people on the outside are lost in bursts of laughter and tears of relief from Robert and Sharon within.

Arrogance, Confidence, Faith

Monk 1Wade walked past the monk twice from about forty feet away. He didn’t make eye contact with the man but could tell from his stiff posture that he wished to be left alone. The park seemed like a curious place to encounter a monk until Wade thought that he probably enjoyed normal activities like regular people. What a stupid thought, he chastised himself. Normal, regular. He’s just a guy in a robe. Sure Wade wouldn’t run into him at the club, but—enough. Just go talk to the guy.

But first, Wade stood in the shade of a large oak tree and ground an old acorn cap into the grass with the heel of his boot. Casual, with hands in his pockets, he affected the pretense of seeing the monk for the first time. His performance met with tight lips and long sighs. Perhaps that’s how these religious types acted. Damn it, Wade, there you go again. Stereotyping when you really need this guy’s help.

Screw it. Wade pushed off from the oak, scuffing the sleeve of his black leather jacket. He walked toward the monk with shoulders back, head held high. When he remembered this wasn’t some dude hitting on his girlfriend, his balled fists returned to his pockets, posture relaxed, eyes searched the ground for acceptance or rejection.

“Can I sit down?”

The monk closed his magazine and rolled it in a tube. Perhaps he’d smack Wade across the nose like a bad dog.

“I don’t hear confessions.”

“Oh, that’s cool, because what I need is advice.”

Wade plopped onto the bench, squeezing the monk over, turning to observe in profile the man’s Santa beard and bald pate. A lanyard with keys and a YMCA keycard jangled as the monk repositioned on the seat. These items, together with the glossy magazine and flip flops, made Wade wonder if this guy had been a monk long enough to offer solid advice. He was old, but how much cooler it would have been if the monk had stopped at this point during his own spiritual walk, toes dusty from the journey, meditating over a prayer book. Wade recognized an ad for Chevy trucks on the tube of magazine pages.

The monk sighed again and crossed his legs, revealing calves covered in lamb’s wool. Wade grimaced but diverted his stare by reading the graffiti carved into the tree trunk behind them. His fingers grazed over Sarah and Andrew’s eternal pledge of love. His cheeks reddened as he traced a swear word. He would have preferred the monk start the conversation with bless you my child but settled for hands folded as if in prayer.

“Okay, so last week my friend, Duke, came to me, and he’s all excited and talking about this great deal he wants to share with me.”

Wade paused, testing the monk’s interest level by trying to catch his eye. The older man offered a nod and twiddled his thumbs much to Wade’s annoyance.

“Anyhow, it’s all about this opportunity to buy in to this new club they’re building downtown. You know this town is, like, primed for new business,” —the monk shrugged and raised his eyebrows— “and I have my share and then some already saved.”

The buzz of a cicada was the only sound until the monk understood it was his turn to speak.

“Yes, well, what’s your question?”

“Should I spend the money? Invest in this place?”

So it was to be a game of twenty questions. The monk seriously considered pointing the young man with a shorn head and tattoos creeping up his neck in the direction of the Catholic Church two blocks south. Surely the priest would be better suited to the task at hand. Instead he gathered his robe about him and crossed his arms, shifting his weight onto his left thigh to gain space between himself and the young man.

“Is this what you saved for?”

“Nah, the money was supposed to be for a down payment on a house. But I have almost double what I need and could easily save it again. Faster because this club’s going to make money.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, Duke’s cousin has experience with this sort of thing in New York. He knows all about running and promoting these kinds of places.”

“And yet he’s here.”

“True. I never thought of that. But I’ve seen the plans for this place, and it’s going to be awesome.”

“Sounds as if you’ve already made up your mind.”

The monk titled his head, blinked slowly, hoping to signal the end of the conversation.

“That’s it? You don’t, like, have any sage advice for me or something?”

The monk’s eyes widened at Wade’s use of the word sage. That’s right, old man, I’m not illiterate. Wade bent to pick up a twig, used it to pry mud from his treads. It was time to really impress this guy.

“I even prayed about it because I’m undecided, you know, and even though I didn’t promise or nothing, my girlfriend knows that money was supposed to be for a house.”

“You prayed?”

“Yes.”

“To whom?”

“Like, God, you know? And then here you sit, so I figured you’re part of my answer or something. Of course, you weren’t the first person I consulted. That was my accountant. God, my accountant, then you.”

The young man settled back on the bench with his arms stretched along the back. He probably expected the monk to turn toward him for the rest of the conversation. If only a throbbing headache hadn’t crept up the back of the monk’s neck. The heels of both hands ground into the monk’s eyes, blotting out the sun and shooting sparks through the blackness. There was absolutely nothing of interest in this whole laughable matter.

“Why on earth did you consult your accountant?”

“Because I’m totally sure this place is going to make money, and I needed to know how to handle it all. Investments and stuff.”

“If you’re sure, why are we having this conversation?”

“Well, Padre,” —the monk didn’t bother to correct him— “that may be the true heart of my dilemma.”

The monk raised his hands, palms up.

“Am I being arrogant by saying this club is going to fly, or is it just confidence that I can make it work, because I’m not afraid of a little hard work?”

“Is there a third option?”

“Oh—yeah.”

“Oh…really?”

“I can tell you’re skeptical, Father Brown,” —the punk laughed at his own joke— “but I don’t want to do anything against, you know, the Big Guy in the Sky.”

Wade tossed a glance upward, nodded knowingly.

“What I’m saying is I’d like to think I’m exercising a little faith about this situation.”

“Faith? Did God tell you you’re going to be successful?”

“Well, not directly. That’s why I’m talking to you.”

“I can assure you He didn’t tell me anything about it.”

The inside of Wade’s cheek received a serious gnawing as he absentmindedly worked his finger at the edge of his nostril.

“I see.”

Perhaps this is over, thought the monk. Tension tightened the young man’s body when he leaned his elbows on his knees, ran his hand hard over his face. The monk clutched his robe and placed both feet on the ground.

“Does it surprise you to know I’ve committed my plans, like, to God, Padre?”

The monk’s stomach knotted at the loosely quoted scripture.

“Yes, well, my son,” —the endearment did not roll off his tongue easily— “it is a club. There will be drinking, and people dancing, and smoking—well, not smoking inside anymore—but still, the women will no doubt be dressed very scantily. Besides, you did earmark this money for a house. Now that’s a real investment even in this lousy economy.”

“So what you’re saying is that my prayers for success can’t be answered? That I’m some kind of arrogant ass to think I might have a shot at this?”

“I’m just, just cautioning against pride, and, well, I’m not sure a club is God’s will for you.”

“But you don’t really know what His will for me is, do you?”

“Well, no. I’m sorry, but—I just don’t know who you think I am. What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, I guess. It was a long shot, you know, even talking to you.”

Wade stood and brushed off the front of his jeans as if crumbs had fallen on his lap. He listened to the drone of a single, persistent cicada calling to someone and receiving no answer. Sunlight beyond the canopy of branches beckoned, and he stepped into the golden warmth.  Without looking at the monk, he said, “Thanks anyhow, man. I know it was, like, a lot to put on you, you not knowing me and stuff. It sounded like a good opportunity, is all. But now I’m not so sure.”

With shoulders rounded, Wade walked away, his arms swaying like abandoned swings.  He headed for the parking lot before veering his course and setting off down the road.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the unusual picture.

 

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