Right, Wrong, and Religion

My religious indoctrination was somewhat eclectic, to say the least. But I learned a great deal from my experiences, some of which I would like to share with you. My intent is not to offend, but merely present experiences and memories as they occur to me.

preacher

 

As well as I can remember my mother never set foot in a church once she married  my father at the ripe old age of fifteen and left her Southern Baptist home. That didn’t stop her from sending my brother and I trotting off with Grandma and Grandpa Bean to the First Baptist Church in Olivehurst every Sunday morning to listen to reverend Cecil Gates preach about hell and damnation. I guess religion never took hold with mom, and she thought she’d give it a second chance with her two older kids—just in case. Maybe that is why we had to say those prayers every night at bedtime:

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

I didn’t mind that part. In fact I got to feeling kind of superstitious about it. Like, if I didn’t say my prayers at night something bad might happen and it would be my fault. It was that next line that chilled me though”

“If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.”

Now, what little kid wants to think about dying before they wake? Maybe that is why I am such an insomniac. That is pretty damn scary.

Back to church, nine and seven years old respectively, me being the big sister, we would be sent to Sunday school where we learned that Jesus loved little children who colored within the lines and were obedient and quiet. The coloring subjects were quite dramatic at times. This fellow Jonah was swallowed by a whale because he didn’t do what God said. Miraculously he was saved after three days and also given a second chance to redeem himself. Then there was the story of Moses and the burning bush that didn’t really burn. But, the voice of God boomed down and told Moses he needed to go to Egypt and lead his people back to their land, his people being the Jews I am guessing. There were many more fantastic stories that would puzzle the questioning mind of a nine year old, but I won’t go into them now. Those darn songs we sang still stick in my head, although the metaphors and analogies escaped me at the time.  I’m talking about “The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rock”, “O Be Careful Little Eyes What You See”, and who could forget, “I Will Make You Fishers of Men”.

 

After being inducted into the Lord’s Army we children were sent out to join the adults in the nave of the church for the finale of the Sunday happening. This is where events became very uncomfortable for me, and Preacher Cecil really got excited. It was time for everyone to leave their seats, head for the pulpit and accept Jesus as their personal savior. If you did you were promised salvation and eternal life, and if you resisted you were damned and would be condemned to join the devil and burn forever in a fiery hell.  Everyone watched to see where folks would end up. My little brother, Denny, and I looked at each other wide-eyed. I could tell he was scared, but when he started to stand up I jerked on his arm and pulled him back down. The piano droned on while the parishioners bleated—“Tenderly, earnestly Jesus is calling. Calling all sinners come home.” I shook my head at Denny. “They’re not talking about us. We’re not sinners.”

bible school

 

I wish that could have been the end of it, but summer bible school crept onto the scene, promising more coloring, more bible songs, and the memorization of bible verses and all the books of the new testament, in order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Acts, the Apostles, and the Romans… After two years of my continued resolute resistance to be saved, mom abandoned her plan to turn us into good little Christian children and we were allowed to live in peace as heathens. The irony of that religious training was that we were never taught in church to treat others as equals, to practice kindness, to be humble and generous. I learned the true lessons of right and wrong at home from my mother and the way she lived her life. The truth is, my Grandpa Bean, and I loved him dearly, was an ornery son of a gun who wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a Mexican while cow-poking in his early days in Texas, and if rumors are true, he once belonged to the Klu Klux Klan, all the while reading his bible every night. So much for the scriptures.

Denny – 13

healing light 4

Another rough night. He cried out in pain. Nothing helped. No sleep for either of us. The next day, shaken and exhausted, I packed my bag, said I couldn’t take seeing him like that anymore. I had to go. I kissed my brother’s forehead and saw the pleading in his eyes. I knew he wanted it to end and wanted me to stay, but I ran out the door. Before I could leave the teenage daughter of one of the sons came to me. This child was an angel, a girl both wise and compassionate.

“Please don’t leave, Sandy. Grandpa needs you. We all need you. It has meant so much to him that you were here.”

I wept and stayed.

Early that next morning my brother died. I was by his side. The nurse arrived, the doctor the coroner, and an ambulance were on their way, but I didn’t stick around to wait for them. The snow had changed to rain, slush, and gloomy skies. I got my dog, my suitcase, and drove away while the rain slashed the windshield and headed for my sister’s house in Yuba City, a twenty something mile trip. Once on the road, I glanced at the gas gauge. It read close to empty, and a small, rural gas station/convenience store loomed right ahead. I pulled in, filled my tank and went inside to pay.

Handing the proprietor my credit card, I said, “My brother died this morning. He lives not far from here. You probably knew him, Dennis Thomas. He coached a women’s softball team, worked for PG and E. He lived here all his life.”

He stared blankly, back at me. “Sorry about that. Nope, I guess I never met him.”

This is my final blog about my brother and his untimely death to this terrible disease, but his memory will always hold a special place in my heart as will those of other loved ones I have lost to cancer: my mother, my husband, Tom, my best friend, Alan, aunts, uncles. I’m angry. I want a cure. I want this suffering to stop.

 

Denny -12

1102667_515429031861641_225566252_o“I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”  – Anne Frank 

Later, while I walked the dogs, one of the sons shaved Denny’s beard, washed his face and hair, brushed his teeth, all in preparation for the wedding. Without his beard he appeared naked and vulnerable, his face white like the underside of a fish. They tried to dress him in a clean white shirt, but he cried out in pain when his arm was moved.

The women cleaned house, set out trays of snack food, paper plates and cups. One son’s wife brought vegetarian lasagna, someone else a cake. I sat numbly by my brother’s side, feeling protective but unwelcome. The incongruity of it—I thought I would break.

People began to arrive and fill every inch of space in the living room/dining room area. The ceremony began. The bride wore a dress but no shoes. The children and cats, overexcited, raced from room to room, the girls shrieking. The pastor wanted to save Denny’s soul so that he would have eternal life in heaven and be waiting there for Sheryl and the rest of his children, and he acquiesced. He had no fight left in him, and it made his wife happy.  Then the pictures began, a macabre scene unfolded. Everyone wanted to be in a photo with my dying brother, propped as he was like a mannequin, barely aware of what was going on. The flash of the cameras accentuated my brother’s pain. I cringed and tried to fade into the shadows, wanting to be invisible. It finally ended.

 

Denny – 11

healing light 3

The wedding was for Gina and Dave, of course. i was flabbergasted. Why? And why now?  Oh my god, that poor girl, I thought. She’s saddled with these little girls, a new baby, plus she has a little boy of her own who stays with her mother. Does Dave even have a job or does he just live here with his mother? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. My only concern was my brother.

Another sleepless night ensued. Denny had a lot of pain which we couldn’t control. Tomorrow morning the hospice nurse was coming with some stronger meds. My sister and youngest brother were dropping by in the afternoon. Sheryl’s other son would be here too,  with his wife and three children, plus another son. And that night the pastor and a lot of people from the church would come for the wedding. I listened to my brother’s erratic breathing, the clamor from the cat box, and tried to quell the night demons battling for domination of my brain.

 

The following morning the hospice nurse upped the dosage, told Denny to take as much morphine as he wanted whenever he felt he needed it. She knew the end was near. My sister, her husband,  and my youngest brother arrived next. Sis had tracked down and bought Denny’s favorite CD of all time, Marty Robbins’ El Paso. Whenever we got together for our infrequent reunions, Denny would burst out in an exuberant song about falling in love with a Mexican girl. He chuckled a little about that while he listened and my sis and I put a fresh wrap around his fetid wound. My little brother could not face the truth about his big brother’s pain and imminent death. He stayed on the front porch, smoking, pacing, unable to come in and say his last goodbye.  Denny listened to El Paso over and over.

Denny -10

 

memories

A wedding? I thought his mind was wandering, but I continued reading to the end, then read Annabel Lee until he finally slept.

It continued to snow and I fretted about slippery roads and a car full of kids. Sometime after ten the family SUV pulled into the driveway. The adults, talking excitedly, carried shopping bags. The kids stumbled in, looking tired and wired.

“Is someone getting married?” I said, taking one of the bags from Sheryl.

 

My sister in law sat her grocery sacks on the table and began unloading frozen vegetarian meals and snacks. They were all, except for Denny, Seven Day Adventists who followed the strict dietary laws of Leviticus in the Old Testament. Not only did they refrain from eating “unclean meat” such as pork and crustaceans, they did not eat meat at all. Strangely, they did not appear to eat vegetables either. They did not drink, and they did not smoke. All healthy life choices, but I could have killed for a beer, a glass of wine,  and a big juicy steak. Instead, I had this to look forward to.

VeganFoodProducts1

 

“Yep. There’s going to be a wedding tomorrow night, right here. I wanted to make sure Denny didn’t miss it. That’s why we went shopping tonight, to buy food for the reception.” She put a stack of frozen of Morning Star Frozen Entrees and Tofurky sausages in the freezer. “Bean dip, salsa, chips, sausage bites, fruit punch. What do you think?”

“Sounds good. Umm, who’s getting married?”

“Dave and Gina, of course.”

Denny – 9

nevermore

Denny smiled and closed his eyes again, his breath came in shallow gasps. “Will you do something for me?”

“Of course. What is it?”

“Help me pee first. You don’t mind do you? Then read me a poem. The book is in the bedroom by the bed. I used to read Sheryl poems at night.”

I felt a lump in my throat and blinked back the tears. After I directed a weak stream of urine into the bedpan and emptied it in the toilet, I found the book and knew immediately where it had come from. One Hundred Best Loved Poems dated back to our time on Murphy Road. My mother subscribed to a book club only to receive the free selections, then canceled. This was one of them, and I had read it many times, knew some of the poems by heart. Evidently, so had Denny. The cover looked faded and worn, some of the pages dog-eared or stained.

“What do you want to hear?” I Said

“Poe, The Raven.”

Poe

As I read, Denny moved his lips in perfect sync with the words. Then, I thought he had fallen asleep, so I stopped.

He reached over and touched my arm. “Finish, then I’ll sleep. Tomorrow is a big day. A wedding.”

Denny – 8

Barn

Memories

That night the entire family decided to go out—shopping at Sam’s Club followed by dinner. They deserved a break, and I finally had quiet time to talk to Denny.  I fixed him a smoothie and sat beside his bed.

“Remember how I used to lead you into so much trouble when we were little kids, just you and me?” I said.

He chuckled. “That time we were playing in the old barn, jumping off the loft onto a pile of hay. I must have been seven and you nine.”

“Yeah, and we landed on a hornets nest. The doors were locked in the barn and we had to scramble out the window, and you weren’t moving fast enough for me.”

“So you pushed me out head first and we ran like hell to the house, screaming bloody murder.”

“A swarm of wasps hot on our tail.” We laughed at the memory. “And that time we were climbing the hills behind our house in Shasta and saw the mountain lion. We ran right through the stream, screaming bloody murder again, thinking that mountain lion was going to have us for lunch.”

“It’s a miracle he didn’t.” Denny smiled through the pain the wracked his body. He reached for the pill bottle, his hand shaking.

“I’ll get you some water,” I said. When I returned I opened the pill bottle and took two out.

“Make it three, this time,” he whispered, closing his eyes.

After he swallowed the morphine I asked if he was tired and wanted to rest.

“No, I want to talk some more. I’m glad you’re here. I was just thinking about that old horse.”

horse

 

“That old fat work horse? We climbed on the wooden fence and jumped on his back—no reins, no saddle, no adults around. We rode double all over that field. He was a gentle old soul. Lucky for us,” I said. I pictured the broad back of the old roan, our legs sticking straight out, Denny holding my waist and me grasping the horse’s mane.

“Yeah, what were we? Still seven and nine? Fearless.”

“You and I were a team, not afraid to try anything.” I paused, thinking back. “I got scared once though. That time we got dropped off at the movie theater in Sparks while mom and Al went gambling. We were younger then, maybe seven and five. What the hell was that movie?”

“I don’t remember, Sandy. All I remember is you held my hand so tight I thought you would squeeze it off.”

I gave him a doubtful look. “It had a staircase. The Spiral Staircase I think. My god, why did they choose that movie? It still scares me.”

spiral staircase

 

Denny – 7

images

My brother’s wife continued to go to work every day, leaving the pregnant young woman in charge of the three girls and Denny’s care, plus the housework. It was too much for her, dirt and grime accumulated, mountains of dirty clothes grew in the girls’ room, and I could barely stand to use the bathroom. I decided to tackle one room at a time and start on the laundry. The washer and dryer sat in the kitchen, only a few feet from my recliner nest, so I didn’t have to leave Denny’s side. Washing turned out to be an unending task as there was always a new set of wet sheets and dirty laundry, but it provided me with a sense of usefulness and a sort of break.

goat walk

 

 

I also allowed myself a daily hour-long walk. With Spock on a leash, and followed by three dogs and a pair of goats, I explored the verdant hillsides and back roads of those Northern California foothills. The beautiful scenery and abundance of wildflowers provided a welcome diversion, the goats kicked up their heels, the dogs sniffed for rabbits. I filled my lungs with fresh clean air, but it was still early spring, and the weather changeable. On the third night of my stay, it snowed.

Denny – 6

“Life is not the way it’s supposed to be… It’s the way it is…The way we cope with it, is what makes the difference.”

First Snow

My brother Dennis Thomas and his son Tony, taken just three months before his death from melanoma.

Dad and I

One of Denny’s most urgent needs was the daily changing of a bandage covering an open wound behind his right arm pit. The six inch slice from a surgeon’s blade refused to heal or close. It stared back at me like a huge toothless grin, draining a putrid liquid that soaked the adult diaper used as a dressing. The first time I saw it I fought back a wave a nausea, swallowing the bile. I thought of a field hospital in Viet Nam, a scene from the TV show MASH, while I tended to that gaping, futile attempt at removing cancerous lymph nodes. A white powder that I never identified was dusted on the wound each day. That, and an increasingly larger dose of morphine, served as the only medication.

The three little girls were healthy, but damaged in some way. I immediately noticed erratic behavior, their inability to attend to anything. I learned they had been taken away from the drug-addled ex-girlfriend of the younger step-son. I could never figure out for sure if he was the father of one or more of these children, or what the relationship might be. The two youngest girls were crack babies, the eldest, an eight year old, seemed angry and mature beyond her years. The beautiful middle child wet the bed every night. She stared at me with her sweet smile and vacuous eyes, as empty as a bird’s nest in December, and never spoke a word. Denny loved them as if they were his grandchildren, and provided for their needs as best he could, and they loved him back.

Denny – 5

 

brothers-and-sisters-together-as-friends

The interior seemed dark after the bright afternoon sun, closed in and sour smelling. I blinked, giving my eyes a minute to adjust. A hospital bed filled one end of the room, probably the dining room, as it was adjacent to the kitchen. My brother lay on his back, looking smaller than I remembered, his head elevated, his face lost in a scraggly beard, grey like the sheets, his blue eyes watery, mirroring pain. He smiled when he saw me, weak but sincere. When he lifted his hand I took it in both of mine, fighting tears, and cracked a grin. Two cats slept at his feet, two more meowed from the kitchen.

“Hey, little bro.”  I heard a blast of whistles, a blaring horn, and looked up to see basketball players racing maniacally up and down a court on the television set a few feet in front of Denny’s bed. March madness was in full swing, and I realized I could not save my brother.

I gradually became aware of other people in the house. Besides my sister in law I recognized Denny’s youngest son from his first marriage, his youngest adult son from his second marriage, a very pregnant young woman, and three beautiful and boisterous little girls racing around the room. Everyone proceeded to talk at once: introductions, questions, up-dates, basketball noise. I wanted some quiet time with my brother, but that was impossible. Chaos reigned in that house. After settling my dog in one of the empty stables I collapsed in the recliner beside Denny’s bed, and that is where I spent most of my time for the next five days, sleeping, eating, talking to Denny, and administering to his needs. The recliner became my home. Sleep became fleeting and erratic. The self-cleaning cat litter box cranked up and grumbled on a regular basis throughout the night.