It’s been three years since we lost Robin Williams and here is the post I shared on this day three years ago:
Granny Wendy: So… your adventures are over.
Peter Banning: Oh, no. To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.
It was January, 1992 and I was lost and alone in Los Angeles. In looking for the hospital hosting my radiology meeting I had somehow ended up in East L.A. a most unsavory and dangerous place. In the days before GPS, I had to rely on a map and somewhere I had made a wrong turn. I said a silent prayer for safety and slowly made my way through the prostitutes and drug dealers converging on my vehicle. God was with me that day and I made it safely out of that area of the city and found my destination. At the end of the meeting that evening, I hit the interstate and headed back toward my hotel on the grounds of Disneyland. There, I would be safe and protected from the harsh world of reality I left behind. There, I would find magic. And, I desperately needed some magic in my life.
In memory of my father, I would like to share an experience I had with my father the day I first saw a dead person! My father would have been 100 years old on June 13th if he had lived but he passed away in October, 2012. Here is my story:
Tessie – Of Death and Roses
My father was 41 years old on the very day I was born. My two sisters and one brother were almost grown by then and my mother thought she was going through “the change”! Neither of my parents was prepared for the arrival of a new baby so late in their lives. Perhaps my father had forgotten how to play with a child or perhaps he was following in his father’s footsteps to be stoic and unemotional around your child. Whatever the reason, my mother’s instruction to me each and every day was not to “bother” your father when he “gets home from work.” I looked up to the thin, balding man in black rimmed glasses with some trepidation. In fact, there were times I feared him. And so it was on one particular day at the age of eight I had an odd connection with my father.
We were spending the weekend in the countryside of central Louisiana. There, the rolling hills of red clay were carpeted with towering pine trees and kudzu vines. The journey from Blanchard in the northwestern corner of the state to Saline near the center of the state took two lifetimes it seemed. At age eight, one and half hours easily passed for such an epoch. The winding roads always left me carsick and I had to avoid my cherished M&M’s and Pepsi cola until we arrived. But, when we turned right at the stop sign in Lucky just five miles from Saline and I gazed out the rearview window into the distance and saw the towering peak of Mount Driskill, I knew snack time was near.
I often daydreamed of what lived on Mount Driskill. It was the highest point in the state of Louisiana and the state’s only mountain. To my mind, it was Mount Doom with marching hordes of goblins and trolls and the tentacled sea monsters that populated my favorite television show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I would crane my neck around and rise up on my bare knees in the back seat of our Rambler to watch the mountain disappear in the pine trees behind us. I vowed that one day, I would climb that mountain. One day, I would beat the beasts of hell to the pinnacle and save the world from certain doom! But for now, I had to settle for gingerly turning around in my seat to avoid getting sick and breathing in the fresh air that came in through the open window.
We often stayed with my grandparents in a towering and crumbling ruin of a house filled with darkness and shadows and the smell of ancient sweat. The eaves sagged and sloped down from the huge tin roof. The stairs swayed in the middle as if beaten down by a thousand footsteps. The ceilings inside the house stretched a half a mile into the darkness and one bare bulb hung from this distant roof by a black wire in each room. If you bumped it, the light and stumbling shadows would fill the air with dizzying, swooping stuff of nightmares. I would run out of the room when these creatures descended and hide in my grandfather’s outhouse.
To this day, I have no idea what possessed my father to ask me to accompany him. He never invited me to go with him anywhere unless it was a family affair. But this Saturday morning was different. I was playing in my grandfather’s front yard avoiding the shifting shadow monsters in the house when my daddy came down the stairs and stopped to stare at me. He seldom stared at me. I was only a chance distraction from his piddling and guitar playing and jogging from one end of the house to the other or his jury-rigging of a broken air conditioner or a henhouse wall. Don’t get me wrong. I knew my father loved me. He sang to me and laughed at me and always kissed me once in the middle of my forehead every morning before he walked out the door. But, he never really looked at me. It was not until I was twenty years old at his brother’s funeral that he told me he loved me. But, I knew he loved me as well as I knew the sun would wallow up from its covers each morning and Sootie, my dog, would slobber all over my face when I sat on the back steps and werewolves were real just kept away from our house by my mother’s prayers and her bush of switches that could leave red welts on the skin of dinosaurs.
But, to look at me deep in thought? This was new. I stopped in my tracks and let the three headed monster I was chasing escape somewhere in the distant bluriness of my imagination and stared back. We stood like that in the stillness and the sound of cicadas buzzing and the trees creaking in the wind. A pine cone bounced beside me and I jumped.
“What is it, Daddy?” I whispered.
“Do you remember Mrs. Tessie?” He said.
I blinked. Mrs. Tessie was unforgettable. When we ventured to Saline, my parents always went to church on Sunday. The church was right behind me, across the street from my grandparents’ house. It was white washed and made of clapboard with a short steeple and a bell tower. It was not air conditioned and when we went to church, mother always made sure we sat next to a window to catch the breeze. Mrs. Tessie would appear out of nowhere. She was a short, thin woman with wild yellow hair and bright blue eyes. She always wore a purple hat with netting. But, she never pulled down the netting around her face and it flew up over her head like Peter casting his net for the fish Jesus brought to the Sea of Galilee. Mrs. Tessie would hurry over to our pew and descend on me like one of those funny birds that bends at the waist and dips its beak in a glass of water then bobs back up and tilts back and forth. Mrs. Tessie was like that only her nose wasn’t covered in felt.
“You are too pretty to be a boy! Isn’t he, Lena?” Tessie said to my mother. She would pat me on the head and then reach into her purse. I knew what was coming. It was the only reason I did not hide behind my mother. She pulled out two pieces of Juicy Fruit gum.
“Here you go, young man. You are a miracle from God. Don’t you forget it.” She would pat me on the head again and then bob up and down and hurry away to her favorite pew.
“Yes, Daddy. I remember Mrs. Tessie. She gives me gum.” I said.
My daddy just looked at me some more and nodded. “Well, she has died.”
I knew what it meant when something died. I lived on a farm. Animals died all the time. I didn’t like it. When my parakeet Cappy died, I cried for two days. When my horned toad died, I didn’t know it until it started stinking up the aquarium. When I picked him up he practically crumbled like one of those old mummies.
I didn’t know what to say to my daddy. It was sad that Mrs. Tessie had died. I would miss the gum. But, she was just one of the many people in my life. Back home, we had 45 cats and 26 dogs and it was sad when one of them died, but there was another one to take its place. Someone else would give me gum.
My daddy looked away then and wiped his face. He seemed to be coming to some kind of decision. He was sweating in the summer heat and beads of water dripped down his bare head into his eyebrows. At home, he would wear a cap with a handkerchief rolled up in the front to catch the sweat. “I’ve got to go see her family. You should go with me.”
I drew in a deep breath. “Go where, daddy?”
“To her house. To console her family.” He looked at me. “To tell them how sorry we are Mrs. Tessie has died. It would mean a lot to them if you came. Mrs. Tessie always loved you so much.”
“Okay.” I said. “I’ll go.”
Daddy nodded and led the way across the yard to the car. I started to open the back door and he shook his head. “You can sit up front with me.”
Sit up front? My face burned with excitement. I never got to sit Up Front. I ran around to the passenger door and hopped up onto the seat. In those days, seat belts were accessories and not required by law. So, I ended up tucking my knees under me with my hands on the dashboard so I could see. It was so different Up Front. As my daddy pulled out of the driveway and into the street, I almost got dizzy! I could see the gray road piling toward us and growing wider as the car ran over it and shoved it behind us. The dashed lines in the center of the road hurtled toward us and each time the car passed over one, I cringed waiting for the crash or the sound of laser fire as if they were energy beams shot at us by aliens.
Daddy was silent as we headed out away from the small town of Saline into the rolling hills covered by the pale green heads of thousands of watermelons. Saline was famous for its watermelons and they were everywhere covering every bare piece of land. They seemed kind of sad to me. It was as if the hills had a million green eyes all gazing to heaven pleading with God to rescue them from the hot, sandy earth; to spare them from being split open with their red meat exposed to the hungry mouths of people.
Daddy pulled the car off the road and down a dirt driveway to a small, dark gray house. The exterior had never been painted and the wood was gray streaked with green lichen and the dead husks of cicadas. The small front porch was dotted with men and women in their Sunday best. As we climbed out of the car, I began to feel a tremble of fear and anxiety. The people fell silent and their heads turned toward us with terrible swiftness. Some of the women’s faces were marred with dark streaks of tears. Some of the men wore frowns and blew smoke into the air. I froze in terror. I didn’t know why. These were the same men and women that sat around us in church. But, here on this gray porch in this hot, fetid afternoon they seemed like the very demons of the devil filled with a terrible knowledge, too terrible to share, too terrible to bear.
Then, the moment passed and as one, the people began to move again and speak in hushed whispers and their eyes drew away from me and I was no longer important to them. My daddy spoke to a young woman who glanced at me frequently and nodded as she whispered. Daddy took my hand and led me up the rickety stairs onto the porch. That is the first time I recall my Daddy taking my hand. His hand was dry and rough from working his garden and scaly with dead skin. But, his grip was intense as if he wanted to hold on to me to keep me from being swept away by the people who milled and swayed around us; as if some dark current from some rising river would wash me away.
We stepped into the living room of the small house. The air was thick with the fragrance of roses and six women sat in chairs and on a couch. Their faces glowed with an unearthly sheen. Their eyes bore a deep sorrow and hurt I had only seen in the face of my Sootie the day he climbed up under the house to die. I tried to reach him. But, the timbers that held up the floor of my house were too close to the ground. I could see Sootie’s black eyes glittering far in the darkness. He had gone there to die. Alone. Why had he done this? Why would he have to die in the first place? And, why did he have to die away from me? I lay there in the dirt and dust under the house and cried until my sister found me and coaxed back out into the light. Two days later, my Daddy retrieved Sootie’s body and we buried him in an old basket out by the pond.
“You must be the little boy Tessie loved so much.” One of the women said. It broke the spell of quiet and I swallowed.
“She gives me Juicy Fruit.” I said.
“Do you know why she loved you so?” The lady’s eyes glittered with tears.
I shook my head.
“She had a dream that your mother’s life was not over and that she would have a child. God told her you would be born. You’re a miracle. You were born so late in your parents’ lives. She always said you were a gift from God.” The woman wiped at her tear streaked face with a lace handkerchief.
Daddy’s grip tightened on my hand and I tried to breath. I was a gift from God? Me? This fat little clumsy boy who got sick riding in the back of a car? I looked up at Daddy and tried to loosen his grip. His teeth were gritted so tightly I thought they would shatter. He looked down at me and sighed. His hand relaxed. He squatted down in front of me and studied me from behind his dark rimmed glasses. “A gift? Yes, a gift.” He mumbled and then his clear eyes fixed on mine. “Do you want to see Mrs. Tessie?”
I raised an eyebrow in confusion. “You said she was dead.”
My daddy nodded. “She is. She’s right over there.”
I turned and for the first time saw the roses. They were in vases and on stands and on shelves at the other side of the living room around a long, black box sitting on a table. The box was long and shallow and my heart raced. I knew what the black box was. I had seen the same box on television when Dracula had opened the lid to his coffin and climbed out to bring death and destruction to mankind. I took a step back and felt my daddy’s hand on my back.
“You don’t have to see her, if you don’t want to.” Daddy said.
I will forever be transfixed in that moment. Eight years old and caught between the world of fantasy and reality, on the cusp of the great opening of my mind to the true world around me, poised on the knife edge of childhood. I could turn and run back out to the car. I could climb back into the back seat and turn my face through the rear window and long to see Mount Driskill. But, a growing sense of inevitability gripped me as if a tight rope was threaded through my navel and slowly, oh so slowly growing taut with anticipation pulling my mind, my soul, my body, my childishness out of the thing it was into the thing it had to become. I took my first step away from childish things, away from the mirror darkly, away from the rain streaked window where Mount Driskill became nothing more than a big hill and the three headed monsters disappeared into simple shadows and the smell of roses became the aroma of death.
I shook my daddy’s hand off my back and walked across the room to the box. I was just tall enough to look over the edge. Tessie was asleep in the dark box. Her hair was perfectly combed beneath the purple hat and the netting. Her lips were red with lipstick and rouge burst forth in crimson from her cheeks and her boney hands were crossed over her stomach. I wanted to feel sad. I wanted to cry like I had when I had seen Sootie. But, instead I was fascinated. So, this is what death looks like? Not some dark phantom of the creaking night with taloned hands and foul breath. It looked like sleep. Like a nap.
I reached out and before anyone could stop me, I touched her hand. These fingers had dug through her purse for the gum. This hand had patted my head. But, the flesh was as cold as an iced watermelon rind. And, I knew there was no life here. Tessie was not here in this room with doting friends and crumbling roses. She was in heaven. She was with God. He would warm her flesh and open her eyes and He would hold her hand as he led her down the streets of gold that we sang about in church.
My daddy took my hand then and pulled me gently away from Tessie. I studied her still features until the edge of the black box eclipsed her from my view and the hot sun greeted my backturned gaze and my father lifted me bodily and put me in the front seat of the car. I do not remember the drive back to the house. I do not remember the road rising up to meet us or the monster emerging from the bushes in the front yard of my granddaddy’s house to play with me.
I only remember one thing. The door to my side of the car opened. And, my father reached in with open arms and gathered my stunned body into his grasp and held me close to his warm chest and his beating heart and his firm shoulder as he carried me, crying, up the stairs into the house.
In 1964, a cartoon premiered on Friday NIGHT called Jonny Quest. I was only 9 years old but I was instantly hooked. I can still recall sitting on our green Naugahyde* couch with a glass of chocolate milk and a miracle whip and mustard sandwich, eyes wide open watching a boy not too much older than me fighting lizard men in the middle of the haunted Sargasso Sea. Those images of rotting hulks of lost and abandoned ships covered with mold and sargassum seaweed still haunt my memories. Here is what Wikipedia says about this area:
The Sargasso Sea is a region in the gyre in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. This system of ocean currents forms the North Atlantic Gyre. All the currents deposit the marine plants and refuse they carry into this sea.
A gyre of refuse and rotting hulks; the ultimate graveyard of ships unwarily trapped in the doldrums; ships and sailors who drifted into the Sargasso Sea and were trapped forever! Here is a perfect description of a maelstrom of misery; a whirlpool of weariness; a prison for those who lose their wind; let their sails luff helplessly, rudderless — lost forever!
Well, I have been trapped in the Sargasso Sea for months now. And, there is no laser wielding boy scientist and his father on the horizon to save me. “What do you do when you have writer’s block?” I have been asked. Always, I have been able to answer this question by claiming that writer’s block has NEVER been my problem. But, what about life block? What happens when everything grinds to a halt and you can’t seem to get anywhere? What happens when crisis after crisis throws roadblocks and speed bumps before you? Life happens. Writer’s block is a symptom far down the line from a life that has been drawn slowly, inexorably into the Sargasso Sea!
It is no coincidence that in the midst of this time in my life, I am trying to finish a new manuscript on depression. I can officially announce that Mark Sutton and I have signed a new contract for an update to our depression book, “Conquering Depression”. Our hope is to launch a new website by July 1 showcasing our current book and helping those who are deep in the doldrums of depression. I guess I need to read my own book!
But, where I am right now is far more complex than depression. I once thought idealistically that there was a point in my adult life when my children would be grown up and on their own and my wife and I would have time for all of that traveling together; golden years of maturity and joy as a reward for a lifetime lived well and fully. I thought of this “golden” time as the years before retirement when we would still have the health and the energy to do whatever we wanted and the freedom to pursue decades of postponed dreams.
Instead, life has grown increasingly more demanding and complex. Aging parents demand more attention than our young children every did! Our grown children face challenges of their own my wife and I never had to deal with at that age. Life continues to happen, unrolling before us as a road with potholes and unexpected detours and roadblocks. How naive I was to think that life would ever be truly uncomplicated and simple. Life is not.
Here is why. Life is change. Life is growth. Life is pain. Life is joy. Life is NOT static. Life is dynamic. The only time when there will be no change; no growth; no pain is when we are dead. This is a startling revelation for me. To live is to face pain AND joy. The two cannot be separated. For, it is in the triumph over these challenges that we find the sweetest joy; the greatest contentment.
As my family journeys forward into the unknowable future, we have to cling to the concept that the Sargasso Sea can trap us, but there is a Navigator, a Pilot, a Captain who can lead us out of the doldrums. His breath is our wind; filling our sails with life and movement and joy.
I cannot even begin to imagine what life would be like trapped in the Sargasso Sea on a rotting hulk of a broken life totally alone without God. In the deepest, darkest moments of despair, God is still there. I may not be able to see Him but the defect is mine, not His. My glasses are clouded by the smears of angrily swiped tears. My eyes are closed against the pain I see in my life. But, if I open them; if I dare to look UP and away from the maelstrom of misery around me, I will see my Redemption is drawing nigh. My sails, though tattered and torn, can still fill with the breath of life and my ship can move out of the dead water into the living Water of life.
As my wife tells me, “Breathe!”. Yes, breathe; inspire; pause and let the breath of God renew you. Today, right now, this moment stilled and frozen in time — reach up with open hands, open arms, open heart to God. His warmth, His breath, His life will renew you as it renews me with each drawn breath.
Today, I choose to sail my broken, scarred ship out of the Sargasso Sea; out of the rotting hulks of depression and despair and defeat. I set my sight on a far shore with a fair sunrise and a promise of unconditional love! Join me and leave the Sargasso Sea behind!
*A marketing campaign of the 1960s and 1970s asserted that Naugahyde was obtained from the skin of an animal called a “Nauga”. The campaign emphasized that, unlike other animals, which must typically be slaughtered to obtain their hides, Naugas can shed their skin without harm to themselves. Naugahyde also was known as plastic leather or “pleather”.
For fun, check out this ‘redo’ of the intro to Jonny Quest in stop motion animation:
Steel looked away. “I feel like I’ve only lived for two years, Claire. I can’t remember most of my life. I’m not ready to die.”
He felt her hand on his cheek. “Silly, I don’t want to die, either. I said I’m not afraid to die. Imagine you’re a caterpillar.”
Steel raised an eyebrow. “A caterpillar?”
“Just go with it, Jonathan. Your whole life is spent crawling along a leaf and eating. That’s all you do. You have no appreciation of where the leaf is. You have no idea of how far you are from the ground if you were to fall. You never see the bird that swoops down to devour you. Your appreciation of the universe is limited. And then, one day you feel this horrible sensation of dread. You feel a change coming. You’re going to die. You dread it. You fear it. You go on eating and crawling pretending it’s not going to happen. It happens. You spin yourself into a cocoon of death and know no more.” Claire’s eyes were wide with emotion. The night air grew still and close, thick with humidity. Time seemed to slow.
“And, then Jonathan, you awaken. Your body stirs and you realize you’re no longer dead. Your cocoon falls away and you spread out huge, luminous wings. You crawl away from your death shroud and you take to the air! You’re no longer a caterpillar. You’re a butterfly! You fly through trees and fields of flowers. You see the sun and the stars. An entire universe you never could have imagined is yours to appreciate. And suddenly, you spy a caterpillar crawling along its leaf. You watch your former self and you wonder how you could have ever wanted to stay like that.”
“That is death, Jonathan. We’re fat, clumsy caterpillars waiting for the day of metamorphosis. We fear the cocoon. But, when we emerge on the other side, we’ll look back from God’s eternal perspective and wonder how we could ever have wanted to stay like this.”
I’ve been overwhelmed at the response to this one passage in “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye”. Some say it is “profound”. Others say it is “comforting”. But, why?
Just yesterday, we learned from a very moving testimonial to the life of Steve Jobs by his sister that his last words were “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” What did he see? Did he emerge from a cocoon and see his new form as a “butterfly” free from the confines of this earthly shape? Or, did he see the Creator in all of His splendor, majesty, and grace? No one can say for sure. But, he did see something.
This weekend, I also watched “The Captains”, a documentary by William Shatner interviewing all five actors who have played a captain of a starship in the Star Trek franchise. The most odd person was Avery Brooks who spoke in lilting metaphors and piano riffs and made very little sense whatsoever. The most concrete was Shatner himself, taking every opportunity to tell his own story of his life and how it was affected by his stent as “Captain Kirk”. But, what was most disturbing, most troubling was the answers he elicited from those he interviewed about God and what happens after death. Most answered, “I don’t know.” And, Shatner’s answer was his final lines as Captain Kirk in the ill fated “Generations” Star Trek movie that bridged the gap between the classic Star Trek universe and the Next Generation universe. As Captain Kirk lay dying his final words were, much like Steve Jobs’, “Oh, my!” I guess Shatner was expressing his desire that he hoped something was out there and whatever it is, he will be surprised.
Recently, the Discover channel premiered a show “Curiosity” and the opening episode answered the question, “Did God make the universe?” The physicists and cosmologists on the show were emphatic. There is no God. We don’t need God. The universe made itself. Even Stephen Hawking proclaimed there is no God and heaven is a “fairy tale”.
How then to put all of this together? I would say that each and every person listed above is nothing but a fat, clumsy caterpillar. Of course from our limited perspective, we can say there is no God; no transcendence; no afterlife. After all, what is our greatest desire? As a caterpillar it is to eat more leaves. In fact, give me a rain forest of leaves without predators and all of eternity to eat leaves! Wouldn’t that be the best existence? And, to defend such a Choice, for it is ultimately a choice; a worldview; a personal decision what to believe; yes to defend such a Choice we must say there is no butterfly! There is nothing beyond the cocoon. That makes all of THIS more important; more desirous; more under MY control. For the butterfly lies beyond my control in another dimension of reality that many would called the realm of “fairy tales”.
Steve Jobs triumphed the adage, “Think Different”. It is time for us to think different; think beyond the leaves and the clumsy state of existence and realize there is something beyond us; something that brought all of THIS into existence and something that has prepared an existence as fantastic and unimaginable as a butterfly is for a caterpillar. We are destined for that far country where we will fall at the feet of our Savior and say “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!”