“The Conversation” — an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life

After the long, difficult challenge of writing Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce, I wanted to do something that stretched the imagination in a different way. So when my other publisher approached me with a proposition to write a smaller, more homiletic book as a companion work to Simple Truths and Small Graces, I jumped at the opportunity.

The result is The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life. It appeals to a different audience than did Chief Joseph, but those of you who are devotees of my Native American-oriented work will see that I am slowly bringing my readership together under a quietly-crafted theology of seeking the spiritual presence in every object and event.

This is the core teaching that I have taken from my work with Native American spirituality, and Hidden Beauty is my most overt attempt to translate this belief into the situations of our contemporary life.

I’ll probably say more about Hidden Beauty as it comes closer to publication (sometime in May, I believe). But I’ll tell you that it has a more complex emotional texture than either Simple Truths or Small Graces. It looks a bit more closely at some of the darker realities that enter all of our lives, but tries to shine a light of hope and understanding onto them. At the same time, it speaks of the ordinary kindnesses and gifts that we too often take for granted.

In these small books I tell people I always try to move gently over deep waters. In Hidden Beauty, I think the depth is a little more evident. I hope you readers agree.

Here is one of the chapters, entitled, “The Conversation.”

The Conversation

At the edge of our emotions, life approaches prayer

I had met Ralph in midlife.  It was a second marriage for my wife, and he was not sure what he thought of getting to know a new son-in-law.  The first had been good enough for him, and he looked with suspicion upon anything that was a product of a divorce — a practice about which he did not have a great deal of respect.

But slowly I had won his confidence, capping it on the night when we had sat at his favorite bar drinking beers while watching a hockey playoff game.

But now he could watch nothing.  The years of hard living, hard work, and hard breaks had gradually sapped his physical strength, slowly reducing him from a gruff, robust man to a fragile bedridden invalid who spent his days lying in an almost comatose state in my brother-in-law’s spare bedroom.

It had been a difficult decision.  As his physical capabilities had waned, we had done what we could to keep him in his home, and when that was no longer possible, had moved him first to a group home, then a nursing home, where he had sat all day staring vacantly into space, with nothing to wait for but his meals and the occasional visit from his family.

My brother in law, a good and caring man, had been unable to endure the sight of his father ending his days in rooms bathed in afternoon half-light, and had made the decision to move Ralph in with his family.  Now, Ralph spent each day lying in bed, unable to talk, unable to sit up, unresponsive, almost unconscious.  The children and my sister-in-law treated him as one of the family.  They would come in, say hello, ask him how he was doing, and try to bring some brightness into his life, not knowing if anyone remained inside the shell of the man who had once been the rock at the center of the family.

My wife and I lived 200 miles away, so we saw him only on our infrequent visits.  We, too, would go in, say hello, and make small talk.  But we, too, were confused and uncomfortable, wondering if we were playing at some kind of dark charade by having one-sided conversations with a man who might not even be present to the words we were saying.  So I don’t know quite what it was that prompted me to make the decision I did on the day I went, pulled up a chair, and sat down by his side.

I began slowly.  “I don’t know if you can hear me, Ralph.  I don’t even know if this makes any sense.  And if you can hear me, I surely don’t know what it is that you are going through.”

I looked at Ralph’s impassive face to see if there was any response.  His skin was ashen, and his skull, pressing through the flesh, made him seem like he was made of stone.

“I figured, though,” I continued, “That you never hear anything of what’s going on, and I just wanted to tell you a little about how your family is doing.”

I began going through each of them, telling him how their lives were going.  I told him how his wife, Mary, now had her own apartment and that we were all helping her in every way we could.  I told him about each of the grandkids, what they were involved in, and how each was doing in school.  I talked to him like a man talks to another man, trying to assure him that the lives he had tried to give to each of his children were bearing good fruit, and that the family he was leaving behind was filled with promise and hope.

It was a strange conversation, both hollow and intimate, for I was speaking like a man speaks in the quiet of his own heart when he recounts his own life to himself in a fumbling effort to make sense of the things he has done.  All I could hope is that the calm tones of my voice and the earnest offerings of my heart were somehow reaching past the emptiness in Ralph’s eyes to touch him, like half-heard music, in some distant place where his spirit still ranged free.

In the kitchen, I could hear the clinking of glasses and the shuffling of plates.  It was time to finish up; the table was being set for dinner.  I reached over to put my hand on his, as I always tried to do whenever I entered or left.  There had been no movement, no sign, no awareness that I had been there at all.

But as I stood up, I caught the momentary glimmer of some moisture in his eye, then saw a tear roll slowly down his lifeless cheek.  I stood there, mortified, gratified, unsure what to say, unsure what to do.

Finally, my wife’s voice, calling me to dinner, broke me from my reverie.  I took my hand off his and stepped toward the door.  “I’ll see you, Ralph, ” I said into the silence.
Then I walked out to join the Sunday family dinner with its laughter and commotion and good-hearted conversation.

But my heart was not at that table. It was in the silent room, only a few steps away.

And as I joined with the family, brought together around a common meal, I prayed, in my own clumsy fashion, that Ralph could hear the clinking of the glasses and the rise and fall of laughter, and that in it he could find some comfort, like one finds comfort in the rolling of a distant sea.

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