Friday, November 29, 2013


I have no problem leading the table in saying grace although I really don't know whether I'm addressing my words on behalf of the gathered to anyone or anything in particular. Sure, I feel grateful. Everyone around the table feels grateful. You can see it in our eyes. Life is sweet and the world is a beautiful gift to wake up to each day, even in its seeming ugliness, pain, and deprivation. Not that any of those things will save us or should be deemed blessings. There are no such things as blessings. And there is no future paradise that will compensate us for the hellishness we must endure here. But the fact that we are alive and able to pray -- even if to no one -- is a miracle, worthy of praise, despite the fact that we no longer live in an age of miracles. Sooner or later everything will be explained, perhaps even the reason I am expressing gratitude on behalf of this little gathering today, feeling as I do, that the world is a problem enshrouded in mystery.

Surely I am nothing but an organism. So what if a "high" one, perhaps sitting at the apex of creation? I was born, will live for a certain number of years, then die. All a matter of biology.

Look at Grandma over there, her head stooped over the soup bowl. What is she grateful for? See how slowly she spoons a bit of the soup into her mouth -- unfortunately, not all of it. Some spills down her chin and onto the nice tablecloth before she can right the trembling spoon. Thank goodness the soup had cooled down, otherwise she might've scalded herself. Next to her, D. takes a napkin and wipes the old woman's chin. D. 'tut-tuts' a bit as she does this, the gentlest of reproaches. But what can Grandma do? Her hands are no longer steady, she worries about her heart -- she had a stent put in back in April but today she looks across the table at her daughter and asks, "Where did it go -- my stent?"

Watch her take her fork and pick at the mashed turnips -- you can smell the nutmeg from here -- and green beans. She hardly eats anything at all. When I was a boy she could smack me across the room. Now she can't sit up straight. D. asks her, "Would you like me to cut your turkey?" Grandma stares at her with a look of bewilderment. "What are you saying?," she asks. Then she looks at her daughter who ignores her. Upstairs a toilet flushes. Bill and Louisa must be there. They decided to stay home and have sex rather than visit relatives who talk only about their medical procedures and the cost of living.

Living is expensive. Every minute draws you closer to the end. It's rather stupefying, isn't it?

Overhead contrails criss-cross toward the north and west. We live in an age when people can fly but it hasn't helped their hearts. Nor has it done anything for their longevity. Sanitation, the flush toilet, and antibiotics did the trick. Now people live as long as Grandma, withered and crazy, lost in a maze, but still breathing, still pumping away. She used to fly to Florida when her sister was still alive, serving out her time in a two-bedroom condo about half a mile from Tampa Bay. She would stay for a week and in that time the two old women did nothing but sit and reminisce about their girlhoods on the shores of Lake St. Clair. They strolled together through an imaginary Michigan -- yachts sailing under blue skies, fresh mulberry pies, going to church at six in the morning so they'd still have the whole day to themselves.

She can't reach the butter. D. reaches over and hands it to her. Grandma likes extra butter on her mashed potatoes. She actually licks her lips as she cuts off a large pat. You watch her mush it into the potatoes. The meal looks better than it tastes. It's always that way -- the plates overflowing with food yet all of it rather bland until you get to dessert. She swallows a mouthful of mashed potatoes and begins to cough. D. urges her to have a drink of water. Grandma croaks, "Wine please. More wine." Then she holds her goblet out toward her daughter who stops chewing, makes a long face, and sighs. "Oh Mother…" Finally she pours her mother a little more Riesling. Grandma drinks it all at once and her coughing stops. And the rest of us? We sit and eat, grateful to be alive.

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