Sundays With Gary

Sundays With Gary

“A life defined by love will not seek to protect itself or justify itself.  It will be content to be itself and to give itself away with abandon…. love never judges.  Love simply announces that the person you are, nor the deeds you have done, have erected a barrier which the power of this invincible presence cannot overcome.”. Bishop John Spong.

In 1997, journalist Mitch Albom wrote a heart-warming chronicle of the final months he spent with his college professor and mentor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of ALS. Many of us, like Albom -a reporter whose world view had been hardened by a career exposed to life’s harsh inequities, were moved by the valuable life lessons tutored from a 78 year old sociology professor who had dedicated a lifetime of service to shaping young minds.  In the process of imparting his final vita dictata to Mitch, he touched the world.

Morrie’s favorite saying from WH Auden was emphatic: we must “love each other or perish.” In the book, Albom is slowly resuscitated to see the world for its possibilities instead of its limitations, and in his personal resurrection, we find hope. We are blessed if we are fortunate enough to find a Morrie Schwartz – a selfless mentor whose life exemplifies the simple truths that “love conquers all” and that “fear and faith cannot not possibly coexist in the same space.”

New Canaan possessed for a brief and magical time our own Morrie Schwartz in the physical and spiritual being of Pastor Gary Wilburn. Diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Gary stepped down from a dozen year tenure as pastor of New Canaan’s Presbyterian church in 2008.

While his body was beginning to succumb to the debilitating symptoms of his disease, he and his wife Bev, sharpened their resolve and focused on the gift of life – moving to a remote town in Baja Mexico to be closer to family, praise every day and to race time to craft a handbook of living in the form of a trilogy of books. His first two books, The God I Don’t Believe In : Charting A New Course for Christianity and Lot’s of Hope pushed us to reclaim the essential message of Jesus and to embrace the power of hope to change a broken world. Gary’s third and final book – Lots Of Love – is an urgent and loving testimonial to the simple but fundamental building blocks of our human and spiritual DNA – that “love is the beginning and the end of our journey.”

Gary and Bev Wilburn’s triumphs and setbacks are faithfully chronicled by Bev on a website called Caring Bridge that reaches across time zones and distance to bond friends and family of those living with chronic illness.  With Bev as the family air traffic controller, Gary redirects every ounce of his physical being as an author – a celestial cartographer and guide — tracking our human journey as spiritual beings and interpreting along the way the simple divinity that swirls around us.

In a time of great fear and uncertainty, we need these clerics, shamans, priests, and holy persons in our lives to help interpret the deeper meaning of our existence. “Lots of Love” achieves spiritual interpretation the way Stephen Hawking fashioned a less complicated lens to the cosmos in his brilliant book, A Brief History of The Universe.   How ironic that these extraordinary insights should come from two men whose bodies conspire each day to rob them of their ability to teach us.

Pastor Wilburn understands that society is, by nature, cynical with self-interest but also believes unquestionably in the divine flickering in us like a candle hidden under a bushel basket.  Our life’s mission is to discover our potential as change agents in a world through the simple act of loving.  Gary guides us the way a naturalist might walk us along a gentle mountain path, pointing out the beauty and genius of simple acts of kindness and beckons us to be certain we inhale the rich pine scented humanity that comes from our compassion, humor and values that bind us all as families and communities.

Gary chronicles and celebrates the undeniable goodness of people and relates vignette after vignette of countless acts of love, gratitude and faith – whether it is in the simple act of passengers giving up their seats at Christmas so an overbooked flight can make room for soldiers trying to get home on leave from Iraq, to the half century romantic story of Nate and Theo, a New Canaan couple whose lives and deaths proved as remarkable a testament to inexorable love as any parable.

Each day physical life may conspire to ebb out of Gary’s body but his spirit flows through his pen and his glorious fight to bring us all a message of hope at the holiday season. Lots of Love is an ornament to be hung on every tree, a candle to be lit on the last night of Hanukkah, an Eid prayer at Ramadan and a strand of lights at the new moon of Diwali.

Gary’s message at these holidays is captured in the haunted words of the great social reformer, Charles Dickens and the miraculous self-revelation of George Bailey in “Its A Wonderful Life”. Lots of Love walks us across a shattered mosque in Iraq and points out the angels that flit around us each day – our eyes not completely adjusted to see these selfless spirits in the bright light of their kindness.

I can see Gary Wilburn every night in my minds eye.  He is resting in his motorized chair, silhouetted against a tangerine and blood red sunset praising every minute of a warm, Baja afternoon.  Bev is nearby, a soft constant breeze and beloved companion.   He smiles and rests – a spiritual being on a human journey.  He considers the gifts and challenges that he has been presented in a life advising and leading affluent and underserved communities. He is at peace.

I call him my Captain and miss him every day that he has been away.  He taught his congregation to listen, to seek to understand, to probe for the truth and yes, occasionally cry with outrage when a serially flawed society fails to make unconditional love its ultimate priority.  He urges us with labored breath that it is through this door of love that we can discover joy, spiritual connection with a power greater than ourselves and rise to heights as humans never thought possible – buoyed by the sheer weightlessness of seeking truth and justice.

Gary has discovered his one thing and shared it with us.  He offers up in Lots Of Love an antidote to anyone whose life is ruled more by fear than faith and who has yet to extricate themselves from the cat’s cradle snares of life’s material traps.

As he would often share with his loving but recidivist and reluctant congregation, “these three things remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love.” (1 Corinthians 13)

The Sandwich Hour

Medical Equipment in the hospital room
Image by cote via Flickr

Bad news usually stalks you under a cloak of darkness. After midnight, a ringing phone is a collect call from the shadowlands – a realm where the awful things that happen to other people find you.

The cell shrilled as we worked our way through traffic on a bright Sunday afternoon of broken clouds.

” Dad, had a stroke,” my younger brother shared with serious certainty.

” The doctors actually think he suffered two but we don’t know much right now. He’s paralyzed down his left side. He can talk but he’s blind in one eye. It occured in the back side of the brain where the speed of recovery is less certain.”

There was a long pause.

” Mike, you still there ?”

” Yeah, I’m just digesting it. How’s Mom ?”

“She’s doing almost too well. She thinks he will be home in a few days and doesn’t really grasp that everything has changed.”

My dad had been caring for my Mom who has Parkinsons disease for the last seven years. He had turned into a resilient caregiver. Over the years, we had teased him mercilessly on his heavy handed approach to child rearing. Yet, there was never any doubt how much we loved and respected him for making his family his primary priority. We were amazed at how easily he shifted from old school overlord and moody shapeshifter to new age male nurse when Mom got sick.

” She basically ran the house while I was building my career. ” He explained when asked if Mom’s constant care was wearing him down. ” It’s my turn and I love your Mom more than life itself. She has made me a better man and given me you four boys and a life beyond anything I could have imagined.”

When I would visit my parents I would always smile with amusement at their symbiotic routines. I would enter their house to find more prescription drugs than CVS, calendars with various doctor appointments, a hospital bed and durable medical equipment that now occupied the first floor living room — a virtual conveyor belt of medical delivery and 24 hour care.

While caregivers would come at strategic times of day and night to give Dad relief from Mom and my Mom relief from him, they had become a loving Abbott and Costello act.

With the TV blaring at AC/DC concert decibel levels, I would hear them yell at one another.

” I NEED MY MEDS, MILES” Mom would announce above the ear splitting dialogue of another Hallmark channel movie.

A yell from the second floor

” WE DON’T NEED TO CHANGE THE BEDS !”

“I SAID I NEED MY MIRAPAX AND SINOMAT !”

“RUTH ,I AM WEARING MY HAT ”

I once called and Dad was pratteling on about how proud he was of my mother for her resilience in the face of her debilitating disease. “Your Mom, Michael, is a brave woman. I love her so much.”

( A noise in the background of another voice and of course, a loud TV )

” Just a minute” he said with minor irritation. With his hand unevenly over the mouthpiece, I could hear him yell downstairs,” what ? Damn it Ruth, I am trying to talk to Michael. Can you just wait a damn minute?”

He returned to the phone perfumed in love and nostalgia. ” Where was I? Oh yeah, your Mom is just amazing.”

I was apprehensive as I called and heard a weak voice on the other end of 3000 miles. “I’m not afraid to die” he shared, ” I just want to be sure you boys take care of your Mom.”

He was exhausted. His brain was working at triple speed trying to repair the broken synapses and uprooted wires that had connected his muscular and nuerological circuit board. The physical therapy was brutal but necessary to quickly recondition the body to learn to walk – not unlike a toddler who must continue the frustrating trial and error of falling until he had mastered his equilibrium.

I flew out to LA where my younger brother had been busy sorting through a landslide of bills, logistics and a thousand speed dialed questions from my mom.

He looked exhausted and welcomed the cavalry. Another brother had also jumped in and we had soon stitched together a primitive stop gap safety net of care, financial support and hospital visitation.

I was unprepared for my visit. The man who had seemed so indestructible for 48 years of my life was bed ridden and vulnerable. ” This damn left hand has a life of its own.” he said weakly. ” Sure is good to see you, Michael. How’s your Mom?”

I was a wreck. My brain was a rapid screen saver show of faded polaroid vacation shots – the flat topped, ex-lieutenant and his four boys with heads shaved cleaner than recruits. ” Mom’s fine. Looks like you have gone to great lengths to get out of commode duty.”

He managed a smile and patted my hand. I was about to lose it but did not want to break the implied ” Stay Strong ” covenant that had been drilled home since an early age.

We talked for an hour until fatigue overwhelmed him, gently taking him from me as he slumped into a deep sleep.

“Welcome to the sandwich generation.” A voice chipped from behind a half drawn, hospital curtain. A gaunt, 50 something, cowboy of a man peered around the corner with a wry smile. His left side had been crushed in a motorcycle accident but he was now on the better side of weeks of arduous physical therapy.

He smiled sympathetically.
“Name’s Doug,” he held out a crooked talon of a hand that gripped mine like a vice. ” You get the complete short straw. You will be caring for your parents, possibly for those extended family that fall prey to the recession and your own kids who will have to work in the long shadows of a sputtering US economy.”

I thought, “who is this guy, Milton Friedman’s Hell’s Angels brother? ”

” Your Dad’s a great guy. All he talks about is you kids, your kids, his wife, Ruth, and of course, how much he dislikes the Obama Administration and Congress” Well, the stroke clearly has not effected his mind.” I mused.

I wondered if the extra burden of caring for Mom had been a factor in his stroke. In recent months, he seemed tired when I would see him but would quickly animate when the subject of politics or business arose.

But each time, he looked like he was losing steam and in some ways, lost to me – beginning some final journey that for the first time in years I could not join him on.

” Dad, where are you going.”

” A business trip, buddy. I will be back home tomorrow night to play baseball with you and your brothers.”

” Can I come?”

” Maybe when you are older pal,” I would watch as the car backed out of the driveway to take him to some exotic location like San Francisco or New York.

.Days later my visits became routine and I witnessed my father’s painful swim back to the surface of the whitewater that had broken his body – but certainly not his sense of humor.”

” I call this useless left hand, ‘ Harry Reid ” and my disobedient, frustrating left leg, ‘Nancy Pelosi’. He grinned. The nurses and physical therapists swirled around him having obviously been charmed by his graciousness and complete willingness to cooperate so he might be released to go home to my mother.

My brothers and I were now wrestling with their fixed income that had not anticipated 24 hour care for two people and a financial meltdown which redendered his fixed income instruments incapable of keeping pace with his expenses. For the first time in retirement, he would be eating into principal. For a depression baby, this was tantamount to deficit spending and leveraging your tomorrow.

Truth be told, he was fine but the anxiety over this next highly complicated stage of their life was weighing on them. Suddenly, father became son and son became father in a bizarre transformation that neither of us enjoyed. We discussed all the salient issues and tough possibilities. In the end. We agreed on a course of action.

Meanwhile, my Mom had mobilized wanting to take a greater role in decisions but missing details that would render her interventions more a distraction than a help. However, without my Dad’s equilibrium, the household was void of control and she was determined after seven years to fill the gap.

Again, we donned one another’s clothing and carried on a difficult discussion about our division of labor and the need for her to let us ” take over”. For someone who bailed boys out of every conceivable miscue and misstep, she still saw us as lacking a critical ingredient of pragmatism that only she possessed. It was some time before we forged an uneasy detente over next steps.

” How are Harry and Nancy today day, Dad?” I chirped as I entered his room the final morning before I was to leave LA

. He was unusually relaxed having gotten an initial conditional release to return home in few weeks. Some motor skills were returning. He would probably never drive his car again.

>”What do you expect from a couple of confused lefties – out of touch with the main body? It’s just one big give away show!”

I smiled and leaned over – hugging him longer than normal and feeling his release twice but choosing to prolong our embrace and not let go. ” I love you.”

” I love you too. I am proud of you and your brothers. Now if those damn Bears can only do something with Jay Cutler at QB, I will die a happy man.”

” I think you should tie your recovery to something more stable than a Chicago sports team.”

” Like what ? ” He laughed. ” The country is going to hell. Obama is running the biggest give away show since LBJ and America will keep reelecting fools like Reid and Pelosi to Congress instead of waking up and realizing they are leveraging our future.”

I left his hospital room and glanced back as he picked up the Wall Street Journal and scoffed at some headline. He was going to be fine and clearly was not going gently into that good night.

For one of the sandwich generation, I began my long journey down a new and unfamiliar road. There is no room for self pity or self centered thinking. It won’t be easy if oracle Doug proves correct – this triple decker sandwich of responsibility. But hey, if Dad can teach Harry Reid to hold a cup and Nancy Pelosi to dance, I can certainly carry my load…