The other day William waltzed into our bedroom wearing a shirt we’d never seen him in before. It was maroon, a color not normally seen around in this household. On the back there were large numbers on it and a name above them – Clark. Then it hit me: he had dug out (from God knows where – the garage?) my old little league uniform. The front read: Tower Little League, All Stars, 91. Dad was the coach that year, and I was the shortstop. That was the year a screeching line drive smacked me in the back of the ear during practice, and the year a drunk umpire called strike three on a pitch that was above my head. I remember dad consoling me after many losses that year. That tear-stained jersey is almost thirty years old. And it fits William perfectly.
That’s hard to take.
Will has also decided, because he has nothing better to do, than to rearrange our house. He started with my closet. He placed all my socks in a basket, and guards it with his life. If I want a pair, I must ask his permission – they’re his socks now, after all – and he gives me what he thinks I need. It’s like waiting in line at a gulag for a rotten commie potato.
Wearing shorts today, Daddy? You get a pair of black dress socks, and you will be thankful for it!
As for my t-shirts, he’s decided to annex them as well. My shirts used to drape down over him like a curtain, but increasingly, not so much. This kid is built like a Panzer. His shoulders are broad, solid, like the grill on the front of a 78 Chevy. The other day, he moved our entertainment center – it weighs at least 75 pounds – across the room like it was nothing. Yesterday morning he moved our trampoline across the yard, after he had lifted a large boulder I had placed on it to keep the trampoline from blowing away in a dust storm. This is what happens when your diet is 75% Greek yogurt. I think back to the doctor who told us, almost fourteen years ago, that because of William’s condition he would have “low muscle tone.”
But what’s most amazing of all is William’s single mindedness: his rearrangements, his ordering and reordering of the furniture in his room, his obsession with folding and hanging clothes, and his commitment to a morning exercise routine of jumping on the trampoline at 7 AM, like a rooster alerting the neighbors that morning is here. When William sets his mind to do something, he goes about his business like the Queen’s Guard. If you try to interrupt him, he brusquely says “No, hush,” and marches on. He’s not trying to be rude. He just has things to do. And as I watch him carry out his plans with absolute confidence and purpose, while the emails pile up, the papers to grade pile up, the bills pile up, the decisions pile up…
Well, it’s hard to take.
“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” – Queen Elizabeth
By a strange historical quirk, both of my grandfathers passed away on the same day: April 13th. We called both of them Pappas, so it can be a little confusing.
Clark Moreland (my Dad’s dad) passed away suddenly in 2002. I was in college, working at Chick-Fil-A on a Saturday afternoon when Carrie called with the news. I broke down in tears and ran out of the restaurant. His mother, Mamaw Moreland, died on the same day, April 13th, many years before. His father-in-law, Waldo Parker, had died two years before him, also in April. Needless to say, our family can’t wait for May to arrive.
My other grandfather, Dan Foreman, passed away twelve years later, on April 13th, 2018, after a long illness. I had just finished teaching a class at UTPB when Carrie called with the news. I drove to their house on “L” Street, where Carrie and Granny were with talking with the folks from Hospice. Pappas lay in his bed, wearing the same kind of white undershirt I had seen on him for more than thirty-five years. He was curled up, his body worn down by illness, and his eyes were closed, but I’ll never forget the expression on his face. He was smiling.
Not that it surprised me. For both of my grandfathers, joy had been sown deep into their hearts. In fact, I don’t remember either one of them not smiling. But this was different: it looked like the smile of little Danny Foreman, like a boy who has found a lost puppy, or has just heard that school is out for summer vacation, or who sees his daddy coming home after a long day. He had told me only a few days before that he was ready to go home, and as the Hospice worker carried his body away, I caught one last glimpse of his face, and I knew. I just knew. Friday the 13th, April, 2018, sixteen years to the day after Pappas Moreland left earth, Pappas Foreman had gone home to join him.
These were men of purpose and vigor. They had lived in West Texas their entire lives. Pappas Moreland grew up in the Depression. Dad likes to talk about how Pappas never really ate a big supper; his main meal of the day was lunch, but supper, most nights, was simply a glass of buttermilk and a piece of bread, the same meal he had gratefully enjoyed as a young boy surviving the Dust Bowl. Pappas Foreman also lived on a farm, and his home was destroyed by a tornado when he was a boy. My grandfathers made it through World Wars and Cold Wars and Wars on Terror, through booms and busts, and somehow kept their wits about them. They raised families that loved the Lord and gave generously to people in need. They had their share of sickness and tragedy, like all of us have, yet they never lost what Queen Elizabeth identified in her remarkable speech a few weeks ago: their “quiet, good-humoured resolve.”
But they never saw a pandemic like this. They never saw oil prices crash like this.
I sit at my computer and watch William walk by, carrying a load of folded clothes that he’s going to transfer from my closet to his. I envy him. Oil is trading below zero, my bosses are talking about budget cuts, my guys from Sunday school are texting me horror stories from the front lines, and the news tells me more people are going to die of COVID-19 this year than heart disease.
I don’t know what to do.
I’m supposed to be a leader at work, a leader at my church, a leader of my home. People are waiting for me to speak, to solve problems, to move the needle. But I can’t. I want to crawl back into the little league shirt and be ten years old again, because that would mean that actual men would be sitting where I am now, men like my grandfathers. They would know what needs to be done, and they would do it.
“His hands are empty so that God can fill them.” – Augustine, Homilies on the Psalms
C.S. Lewis relates a story that his wife Joy had once told him, about how one morning she was haunted by “a feeling that God wanted something of her, a persistent pressure like the nag of a neglected duty.” However, when she finally decided to stop worrying about it, a soft voice whispered to her, “I don’t want you to do anything, I want to give you something.” Immediately, Lewis says, her heart was “filled with peace and delight” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 930).
We are told in the Psalms to “be still and know that I am God” (46:10). “The LORD will fight for you,” we are assured; “you have only to be silent” (Ex. 14:14).
I’ve never been good at being still and silent. Ask my mom. Whenever I would reach the zenith of my boyish obnoxiousness, Mom and Dad would send me off to spend the night at Pappas’s house, partly as a gift to me, and partly to keep from having to kill me. Sometimes my sisters would accompany me, and we would set up a grocery store in Granny’s kitchen, or sneak off to the park across the street, or even wander over to the Children’s Museum or the Planetarium.
Some nights, though, it was just Pappas and me. We would pick up fried chicken or hamburgers, go to a ballgame, or just hang out at the “L” Street house and play Battleship. After supper, we’d head over to Walgreens and buy some Bluebell or a Big Red Bucket, which was a five-gallon container of Gandy’s ice cream – vanilla, nothing fancy. We’d come home, and I’d scoop out as much as I could fit into a bowl, and then drench it in Hershey’s chocolate syrup that came out of a can.
Then he would give me one of his undershirts to sleep in. When I was younger those shirts would cover me from shoulders to toes; the older I got, the smaller the shirts got. Then we’d crawl into bed with Granny, and he’d turn on Johnny Carson. I’d pull the shirt over my knees and sit like Buddha in the middle of the bed. Granny would remind Pappas to change the channel if something risqué ever came on, but I don’t remember Pappas ever having to, and besides, Granny was already asleep by the time Carnac made his appearance. I would aspire to stay awake for Letterman, but as soon as Johnny began interviewing his guests, I too would drift off into the warm, peaceful sleep that little boys are granted.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – John 14:27
Maundy Thursday night, William decided he would sleep in our upstairs study. The problem is that there isn’t a bed in that room.
Heh, like that’s gonna stop William Clark Moreland.
He gathered all the essentials. He packed a suitcase full of clothes, each piece neatly folded and stuffed. He filed two Piggie and Elephant books and a Curious George book (Curious George Goes to the Chocolate Factory, which I am willing to give to anyone who asks) into one of my backpacks, along with a box of cookies and a chocolate milk container. Then he laid out his pallet: his new REI 30* rated sleeping bag that he fell in love with during our (failed) camping trip; sheets and pillows; an umbrella (?); and a mirror that had previously been hanging on the bathroom wall (??).
“Daddy, time for bed.”
I creaked downward and rested on the hardwood floor. We read the Curious George book. Again. As soon as we finished, Will said, “Daddy, Will’s school’s sick.”
“Yes, I know son. We can’t go back to school yet.”
“Daddy, go to church at home.”
“Yes. We watched church at home this week.”
We thanked God for our home. We prayed for the sick and for our friends who are hurting financially. We prayed for Will’s teachers and for his friends who are considered at risk for contracting the virus. We prayed for his grandparents. Then we prayed for Granny.
“Daddy, Pappas in heaven.”
“Yes, that’s right Will. Pappas is in heaven. Do you know, that’s what Easter means? Jesus died, and then he came back to life.”
His eyes lit up: “Yeah, Jesus. God’s Son!”
“That’s right. And now, Pappas is in heaven because of what Jesus did for him. Do you want to go to heaven?”
“Ok, well all you have to do is trust in Jesus. Do you know what that means?”
Did he really understand? Maybe not. But no more than me. I’m learning, though. Yes Jesus, I’m learning, every day, how to trust You. How to be still and know that You are God. How to be silent and let You win the victory. My hands are open, Lord, ready to receive what You send our way. Thy will be done.
“Ok, well we’ll talk about that later, son. Now it’s time for bed.”
“Good night, Daddy.” His eyes were already starting to flutter. I lay next to Will for a few minutes as he drifted off into the warm, peaceful sleep that little boys are granted. I’d like to say I stayed there because I was meditating on some profound idea, but the truth is, I didn’t have the strength to get up from the ground just yet.
Then Will suddenly jerked back awake, and looked at me with frightened eyes.
I laid my hand on his chest. “Yes, son, I’m here. Just be still. Daddy’s here.”