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Dead Birds and Debt Ceilings

Friday, 15 July 2011
Immortality
I had just returned from a two hour visit to the beach. Just enough time to bathe in the sun, read some more of my book, cool off in the refreshing ocean water and. . .my favorite pastime. . .people watch.

I love to watch people - young and old. The babies, waddling in their diapered swim suits, slathered with sunscreen lotion, shovel in hand, squealing with delight at the seagulls. Their parent's and teen aged siblings, bodies toned and tanned and skimpily clad in Speedos and Bikinis that would make a French sailor blush. The grandparents with modest bathing suits that do not conceal 'bay windows' or ample, sagging breasts, cellulite on their legs and wrinkles on their face and arms, and an occasional scar that look like zippers on their chests or crescent moons on their knees.

It's easy to believe, when you're at the beach, that you are going to live forever.

Bodies don't lie. The truth is all there, if you look for it.

I came home and, before I took off my bathing suit and showered the sand which rudely invites itself into body crevices and creases - a small discomfort to pay for the absolute pleasure of being on the beach - I took Theo for a walk.

I ran into a neighbor whose seven year old granddaughter has been visiting this week. "How's it going?" I asked him.

He smiled broadly, then shook his head as he laughed and said, "Honestly? I'm exhausted!"

We shared a knowing laugh as his granddaughter came 'round the corner, walking very slowly and looking sad, her hands cupped around a small, limp, dead bird.

"Pop-pop!" she cried. "Look! The bird is dead!"

We moved over to inspect the evidence. My neighbor gently and lovingly put his hand on the little girl's head and said, "Yes, sweetheart. That bird is dead."

"But, how, Pop-pop? How did he die?" she cried.

His knees creaked loudly as he knelt down beside her and softly spoke a harsh truth, "Not everything lives forever."

"But why?" the little girl wailed. "Why did it have to die?"

He put an arm around her, giving her a gentle squeeze, and gently spoke another harsh truth. "Because, eventually, everything and everyone dies, sweetheart."

A big, fat tear flowed down her chubby cheek as she looked deeply into her grandfather's eyes. "Everyone? Even you?"

He returned her deep gaze and said, "Listen to me. Pop-pop loves you so much. I love you enough to want to live forever - to see you grow up into the person you're going to be. And, God willing, that will happen. But, you know, I can't promise you that. No one lives forever."

"But YOU will," the little girl cried.

"Well," he said, "here's what I can tell you and it isn't a lie. It's the truth. And, it's a promise: I will love you forever. Always. Do you believe that?"

The little girl looked at the dead bird, and then her grandfather, and sniffed back some clear liquid that was running down her nose and said, "Yes, Pop-pop. And I will always love you."

The grandfather smiled broadly and said, "I know. I know, sweetheart. Now," he said, standing up with a soft groan and a loud creaking of his knees, "let's put that bird down in the grass here for a minute while you go in the house and wash your hands. Lots of soap and water, okay? Then, ask Nana for a shoe box and we'll give this bird a proper burial. Maybe the Rev here can say a few prayers. Okay?"

The little girl nodded her head, gently placed the bird on the grass and then walked slowly into the house to do as she was told.

There was a silence between us that suddenly became very loud. "Good job, Pop-pop," I said, more to break the silence which had become more uncomfortable than the sand that was stuck to my body.

"Thanks," he said. And then, he shook his head and said, "It's like the damn budget."

I looked at him curiously. "What?"

He took a deep breath and began his rant, "Look, I'm a Republican - been one my whole life - but those clowns in Washington - Republicans and Democrats - think we're going to live forever. And, they spend money like they are immortal. Cut Medicare and Medicaid and programs to the poor and give tax breaks to the millionaires and billionaires? What kind of thinking is that? That ain't Republican politics. I can tell you that."

"Yes," he continued, "we spend too much on health care, but it's not just insurance that needs to be reformed. It's the whole health care system that keeps people alive well after they should. I'm talking babies and old people and young people who take stupid risks with their lives. Motorcycle accidents that leave people angry and in a wheel chair with millions of dollars in medical expenses. Premature babies that would have died not even 20 years ago and then need a life time of medical care to have some - but not much - quality of life. At who's expense?"

"We think - we want - to live forever and we don't give a tinker's damn about who came before us and who might come after us. And then, we have the nerve - the unmitigated gall! - to complain about 'overpopulation' and 'pollution' and 'climate change' - not to mention 'unemployment' and 'debt'."

He shook his head sadly and said, "I know I sound like a 'Hallmark Card' but, you know, life is a gift. That's why it's called the 'present'."

I laughed and said, "Or, like my favorite T-shirt that says, 'The one with the most stuff still dies'."

"Right!" he said. "Look, we have enough money in this country. Lots of money. Tons of money. That's not the problem. The problem," he continued, "is that our priorities are all screwed up."

"We were taught as children and we teach our children and grandchildren, 'Share'. 'Be kind.' 'Take care of those who are less fortunate'. 'Love your neighbor as yourself'. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'. And then, we grow up and have a taste of power and all of that goes right out the window."

I was about to open my mouth and say something but just then, his granddaughter came out of the house with her Nana, holding a shoe box. She looked very solemn as she approached us, saying softly, "I washed my hands, Pop-pop. Real good. Nana helped me. And, she found the shoe box."

Nana smiled at me. She had a roll of paper towels tucked under her arm and ripped off a few sheets and handed them to her granddaughter as she said, "Remember what I told you. We'll use these to pick up your bird."

The little girl did exactly that, but with a solemness and seriousness that belied her seven years. She picked up the dead bird with a double layer of paper towels and put him gently in the shoe box, covering him with the paper towels like a blanket.

She turned to me and said, "Would you say some prayers, please?"

I took the box from her hands but it was clear that she was not going to let go. We stood there, at the bottom of her driveway, holding the box together.

"You, too," she said to her grandparents. They moved in and we each took a corner of the box. I closed my eyes and hovered one hand over the open box while I said a prayer which, as I recall, thanked God for creating us and giving us life.

I think I said something about how wonderful it was - and how grateful we were - that this bird once flew in the sky and nestled in the trees and sang beautiful morning songs to the God that created everything on the earth while we enjoyed the privilege of listening in.

I remember saying something about hoping that this bird's death would remind us how precious life is and praying that we would learn to celebrate the gift of life and to cherish each moment - the good and the bad - that are all part of life.

I probably said more - too much, no doubt - but when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, I saw that the little girl was holding onto the box with her eyes shut as, together with her grandparents, she said a solemn and heartfelt "Amen".

I handed the box back to her and, as her Nana gave her the lid, she whispered into the box, "I will love you forever."

She sighed and then looked at her Pop-pop and asked, "Where should we bury him?"

"Well," he said, "How 'bout under that tree over there?"

"Yes!" she said in full, serious agreement. "He should be close to a tree. Under the sky. So I can visit him whenever I'm here. And, remind him that he is loved."

I've been thinking about that conversation all morning, in between making the potato salad and cheese cake and bread in preparation for our granddaughters birthday parties tomorrow in NJ.

I suppose, then, I wasn't surprised to read this Op-Ed piece in this morning's NY Times.

David Brooks begins by writing about Dudley Clendinen’s essay, “The Good Short Life,” in last Sunday's Times’s Review section. Clendinen is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. If he uses all the available medical technology, it will leave him, in a few years’ time, “a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self.”

Brook writes:
Instead of choosing that long, dehumanizing, expensive course, Clendinen has decided to face death as one of life’s “most absorbing thrills and challenges.” He concludes: “When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over. It’s time to be gone.”

Clendinen’s article is worth reading for the way he defines what life is. Life is not just breathing and existing as a self-enclosed skin bag. It’s doing the activities with others you were put on earth to do.

But it’s also valuable as a backdrop to the current budget mess. This fiscal crisis is about many things, but one of them is our inability to face death — our willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy to extend life for a few more sickly months.
I'd like to say, "Great minds," and all that, but I think something is in the summer air. You can feel it blowing hot and dank from Washington.

Except, Brooks places the bulk of the blame on health care costs. I think health care costs are just a symptom of an age old problem of the human enterprise.

I think Pop-pop is right.  It has to do with our mortality and the wish to be as immortal as Gods.

Maybe it takes a friend who has ALS or some other debilitating terminal illness to wake us up to the fact that we are all, one day, going to die.

Or, maybe we've forgotten the first time we encountered a dead bird as children.

"Nobody lives forever," as Pop-pop said.

We are all mortal. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Dead birds to debit ceilings.

But, in between, there are blue skies and birds and fish, the ocean and books and people watching, dogs to walk and annoying sand to get out of body crevices, cheesecakes and potato salad and bread to make for birthday celebrations that come 'round again too quickly.

Besides, we're all going to live forever with Jesus. One day. In that great by-and by. We can't know the real gift of that faith unless you live this life - this one, precious, limited gift of life - with all the kindness and compassion and joy and love you can squeeze into the shortness of its days.

I think we really miss the mark when we miss the opportunity to pass along that secret to our children and grand children.

You'll excuse me now. The potatoes and eggs are cooling in the colander and the ground-nut crust for the cheesecake is out of the oven and cooling on the counter. I'll come back and get the cheesecake batter going and then put it in the oven while I start making the gluten-free bread.

Meanwhile the "discussions" about the budget and taxes and debt ceiling will continue. The Gods of Washington must be appeased. A living sacrifice must be made so they can continue to live in the illusion of immortality.

They will have to have those conversations without me. I've sent my emails to the President and Speaker Boehner. They know how I feel about the mess they've created. I'm hoping Eric Cantor will be sent away to sit at the "little kids' table" so the adults can get on with important decision-making.

After all my chores are done, I'll pack up and head to the beach again. But first, I've been called to do a Burial Service for a dead bird and say some important words for a little girl who has learned something from her grandparents this summer about mortality and eternal love.

I wouldn't miss that for the world because, you know, life just doesn't get much better than that.

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