Been thinking about legacies lately. Not the kind that gets passed down in a will but the kind that get passed down in our hearts.

Becoming a beginnerI started thinking about it as I read a column about a World war II vet in our area. Like Forrest Gump, he always seemed to be around when history was being made: meeting Douglas McArthur, Pearl Harbor after the attacks, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the bomb dropping at Hiroshima. I gradually realized that I knew this vet: his grandson is married to my niece. I didn’t make the connection at first because I hadn’t heard most of the stories.

Which led me to thinking about the legacy my niece’s children have. Their dad’s grandfather was a frogman, swimming underwater to find and defuse bombs before they could blow up ships. He’d gotten the job because as a boy, he’d grown up swimming. My niece’s grandfather (my father) was a sniper in Gen. Patton’s army. The work suited him not only because he was a good shot but because much of it meant working independently, freelancing, going out ahead to scout out the land and the enemy. He liked being able to do that. An artist, he could draw what he saw.

Two great grandfathers who did what they could in a terrible time. Two young men – more like boys, really – who used what they had in order to stand up to a great evil. Two men who did a job that was terrible in ways I cannot imagine, who sacrificed more than most of us know and who came home to do the mundane, priceless; blessed work of providing for and raising their families. As family legacies go, my niece and her husband could do worse.

I profoundly hope that Jack, Emma and Olivia never have to fight in a war. (If they do, Emma will be the one with combat boot bling.) I do hope, however, that they will live in the courage and commitment of their great grandfather’s legacies: that they will use what they have to make the world a better place, that if they see evil or when they see injustice they will not be afraid to oppose it. That they will work to bless the world, whether one cause at the time or one family at the time.

I hope they realize that doing such things is simply in their blood. They are the descendants of Joe and of Clive.

Family legacies can be great treasures that inspire us. Or they can be cautionary tales that we choose to rise above. What are your legacies?


Unfettered childhood (Listening to a life)

I suppose he had every right to think of his childhood as deprived. My grandfather was hard hit by the depression and the family never seemed to get back on their financial footing. They moved around a lot. For a while they lived with his mom’s mother.

Joe and Harmon

And yet, every time I think of my father’s childhood, I think of the richness of it. There were always stacks of newsprint at the house for drawing. He and his brother Harmon made papier-mache football helmets that they baked to a hard finish in the oven. When they loved playing Monopoly at a friend’s house, they knew they had no money for such trivial things. and so they made their own. The two brothers carefully measured out and painted the board. They melted on the stove scraps of lead they’d scavenged and poured it into sand molds to make the game pieces. (Whose mother doesn’t let her children play with hot lead?)

There was no money for entertainment but my grandmother packed up the kids and drove them to a local college for their free summer classical music concerts. And, of course, there were always books. As my aunt observed, “They read about boys having adventures. Then they went out to have their own adventures.”

One day my father happened upon Harmon building a boat in the basement out of an old bookcase.  After the slightly less than seaworthy craft  named Jeep was built, Harmon suggested that they tie it to the top of the car in order to get it to the James River. When my father replied that he didn’t think their mom would let them do that, Harmon replied, “Let’s assume she would have said yes if we had asked her, and go ahead and do it.” (Sailing the Jeep down the James became one of our legendary family stories.)

I feel that at this point I should insert the disclaimer: Do not try this at home.

Except that I think that the spirit of it is what we all need. (Second disclaimer: I am not advocating that your children sail their homemade boat down a major river.)

Joe and Harmon had an unfettered childhood. Their mother insisted on using correct English grammar, but she let them explore. Create. Use their imaginations. As a result, they grew up thinking that they could do anything. And they did.

I’m not talking about the sense of entitlement that we see far too often, children thinking that they should have anything or that everything should be done for them. This is the opposite: a sense of empowerment.

Joe and Harmon got to use their imagination a lot a boys. Some of it was encouraged, like always having paper handy. And some of it was necessity, like making their own Monopoly set. As a result, they grew into a natural belief that if they wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to do it.

When my father started sailing seriously, he learned celestial navigation. He designed much of the furniture he built. My uncle dropped out of high school but then went on to earn a PhD and spend much of his career as a university professor. They believed they could find a way to do it. And they did.

Children need unfettered play. (Once again, a disclaimer. I am not advocating sailing down the James River by themselves in a boat that is barely afloat.)

Children need an opportunity to create, to imagine, to make up their own games and their own worlds. Children need to gain a sense of mastery by  facing a challenge and then overcoming it. The thing is, children will do this if allowed. Ever see a two-year old at Christmas having much more fun with the box rather than the toy that came inside?

As adults, sometimes we need to help and encourage them in figuring things out (What do you think we could do here?) And sometimes we just need to get out of the way. Give them blocks. Or boxes. Or a stack of paper. Or a yard to explore. And let them play.

One of the saddest comments I can remember reading came from a preschool teacher who said they children in her class had no idea of what to do when they were turned out onto the playground and given free playtime. They’d never been allowed just to play. Some adult always organized the game for them. They didn’t know how to turn the jungle gym into a pirate ship.

I wish every child such a childhood that creates adults who think they can do anything. And do.

Listening to a Life: Death

If you came to my house (and please do not consider this an invitation), among my many books you’d find an entire shelf or more of biographies and memoirs. I love reading about other people’s lives. As  I read about how they faced their challenges and followed their dreams I learn lessons for my own life.

So I want to focus a couple of blog posts on learning from one particular life.

Joe Haymes

My father, Joe Haymes, died earlier this month at age 87. He was, by all accounts (and not just mine) an extraordinary man. I learned a lot from him over the years, but I think he still has things to teach us.

So I start with the ending.

My father had Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease in which supple lungs gradually grow hard and unable to take in oxygen, probably the result of nearly 30 years of smoking, a habit he began in the war. At the end, he also suffered from dementia. The dementia really began after my mother’s death and  I am convinced that after a lifetime together, his mind could not accept being in a world where she was not.

In January he began going downhill sharply. He also started to tell us he was dying.

Lesson # 1 – Listen to what dying people tell you. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (EKR) began her work, part of what was ground-breaking (and scandalous at the time) was that she listened to people talk about dying. Before that dying patients were shuffled off into far corners of the hospital where they could be safely ignored.

When my father began saying, “I’m dying,” some of his caregivers became upset and told him not to talk like that. Because of my work and my training, I knew that it was important to pay attention and to begin preparing for the final stages. He was telling us what was coming.

Lesson #2 – Listen for symbolic language. After my father had been moved into the nursing care unit, he asked me one night, “Do I need to pack for my journey?” It took me a few seconds to realize what he was asking, and  I reassured him that no, he had everything he needed. He smiled and relaxed.

EKR used to tell stories of families who tried to correct patients who told them that they were going home the next day. The families didn’t want the patients to be disappointed when they were unable to leave the hospital. But, of course, in a deeper sense going home is exactly what they did.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes dying is a lot like birthing. Over the last weeks as I sat by my father’s bedside, I realized I felt a lot like a midwife. Now I’ve never actually been there when someone was giving birth (well, there was that one New Year’s eve party that wound up moving into the maternity waiting room, but I digress.) Even so,  it seemed so similar to me.

We were waiting for it to be time, a time no one could predict or control. I couldn’t make it happen or not happen. All I could was sit and tend to those elementary needs – a sip of water, rubbing his back, sharing a chocolate chip cookie, reassuring him. I felt like a midwife.

Dying seemed a lot like birthing, and as a Christian, that is exactly true. We believe that death is not an ending but a transition. There are times when our faith demands of us a dying as a gateway to a birthing – and in the end our bodies get in on the action as well.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes death is a friend. After being moved to nursing care, my father developed pneumonia. “I’ll call the doctor about prescribing antibiotics,” the nurse said. “No,” I stopped her. “If you cure this, he is still dying of lung disease.” Actually, pneumonia was known as the old person’s friend because when they were ill and frail with no hope of better, it came in and ended their suffering.

There is a temptation to do a medical intervention just because we can. We feel as if we are being mean or heartless or abandoning them if we do not do everything that can possibly be done (which these days is a lot.)

But we were not made to live forever. At least for now, all of us will come face to face with that point at which our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Even so, with modern medicine, we can be kept here beyond that point. Beyond the point of life having any meaning or value, the point at which there is only pain and discomfort. There comes a time when the most loving thing we can do is to let someone die as their body needs to die.

Lesson #4 – Hospice is wonderful. While Hospice had been involved in my dad’s care for several months, for the last week of his life he had the gift of being at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home in Winston-Salem. When he first arrived, the doctor announced that they were taking him off all medicine except what was needed to keep him comfortable. (I mean, really – did we care if he had high cholesterol at that point?)

They took it as their mission to make him comfortable and did not rest until they had the right combination of medication that allowed him to be peaceful. They also took it as their mission to care for me and other family members who were present.

I’ve occasionally heard older folks say they didn’t want to go to hospice because “my friend was there and they wouldn’t even give her food and water and that’s just cruel.” They took my dad off food and water for the last couple of days as well but not because they were cruel. It was because they understood that one of the ways that the body prepares for the end of life is to start disengaging from life. The patient no longer wants food or water. They are moving beyond those things. The patient isn’t suffering hunger. They no longer need those appetites.

As  I see it, the purpose of hospice is to create a place where a person may be  gently held as they make this last and maybe most sacred journey, a place where the body is allowed the grace of doing what it needs to do with the only intervention being for comfort. It is also a place where loved ones are held, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. Families are given all of the support they need so that they can focus on the holy task of supporting their loved one.

For me, it was a place where I could relax and just be present with my father. And that is a priceless gift.


Next time we’ll have a little lighter look as we learn from a childhood in which adventures were had.