Merton's loses his grandfather . . .
In the fall of 1936 Pop died. The manner of his death was this. I had been on a geology field trip in Pennsylvania, and had come back, late one Sunday night after a long cold ride through New Jersey, back from the coal mines and the slate quarries, in an open Ford. The icy wind of the Delaware Water Gap was still in my flesh. I went to bed without seeing anybody. They were all in their rooms by the time I got home.
The next morning I looked in Pop’s room, and he was sitting up in bed looking strangely unhappy and confused.
“How do you feel?” I said.
“Rotten,” he answered. There was nothing surprising about that. He was always getting ill. I supposed he had caught another cold. I said:
“Take some more sleep, then.”
“Yes,” he said, “I guess I will.”
I went back into the bathroom, and hastened to dress and drink my coffee and run for the train.
That afternoon I was on the track, in the pale November sun, taking an easy work-out. I came down the shady side of the field, in front of the library. There was one of the juniors who worked for the Yearbook standing behind the high wire fence, at the corner nearest John Jay, where the bushes and poplar trees were. As I came down to the bend he called out to me and I went over to the fence.
“Your aunt was on the phone just now,” he told me. “She said your grandfather is dead.”
There was nothing I could say.
I trotted back along the field and went down and took a quick shower and got into my clothes and went home. There was no train but one of those slow ones, that ambled out on to the Island half empty, with long stops at every station. But I knew there was no particular hurry. I could not bring him back to life.
Poor old Pop. I was not surprised that he was dead, or that he had died that way. I supposed his heart had failed. It was typical of him, that kind of death: he was always in a hurry, always ahead of time. And now, after a whole long lifetime of impatience, waiting for Bonnemaman to get ready to go to the theater, or to come to dinner, or to come down and open the Christmas presents, after all that, he had brooked no delay about dying. He had slipped out on us, in his sleep, without premeditation, on the spur of the moment.
I would miss Pop. In the last year or two we had drawn rather close together. He often got me to come to lunch with him downtown and there he would tell me all his troubles, and talk over the prospects for my future—I had returned to the old idea of becoming a newspaper man. There was a great deal of simplicity about Pop. It was a simplicity, an ingenuousness that belonged to his nature: and it was something peculiarly American. Or at least, it belonged to the Americans of his generation, this kind and warmhearted and vast and universal optimism.
When I got to the house, I knew where I would find his body. I went up to his bed-room and opened the door. The only shock was to find that the windows were all open and the room was full of the cold November air. Pop, who in his life had feared all draughts and had lived in overheated houses, now lay under a sheet in this icy cold death-chamber. It was the first death that had been in the house that he had built for his family twenty-five years before.
Now a strange thing happened. Without my having thought about it, or debating about it in my mind, I closed the door and got on my knees by the bed and prayed. I suppose it was just the spontaneous response of my love for poor Pop—the obvious way to do something for him, to acknowledge all his goodness to me. And yet, I had seen other deaths without praying or being even drawn to pray. Two or three summers before an old relative of mine had died, and the only thing that had occurred to me was the observation that her lifeless corpse was no more than a piece of furniture. I did not feel that there was anybody there, only a thing. This did not teach me what it taught Aristotle, about the existence of the soul...
But now I only wanted to pray.
It's a strange thing when it happens--the urge to prostrate yourself and pray. Merton says as much. He hasn't had any real religious education, Just brief encounters with Quakers and Catholics and Protestants. At points in his young life, he's felt the pull of what Christians call the Holy Spirit--a breath of divine fire moving through him. Yet, that fire has never consumed him. Yet.
Today was my wife's 47th birthday. We have been together since she was 16. If you do the math, that's 31 years. We've been married for 25 of those years. I remember that first time I celebrated her birthday with her. I put signs on her front lawn. Picked her up from school in a car decked out with balloons. Took her out to dinner and had roses sitting on the table where we ate--a Mexican restaurant that no longer exists. And I remember kissing her goodnight, an unforgettable kiss. To quote The Princess Bride, "Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind"
In the 31 birthdays since, we have had some serious struggles, times that dragged me to my knees to pray, as Merton does in the passage above. I think only real love can bring you to that place of humility and desperation, when all you can do is kneel and say, over and over, "Helphelphelphelp." It's the most basic and truthful prayer a person can utter.
Because asking for help is an act of surrender, of realizing that there is nothing more you can do. You're in over your head. True love is like that. You drown in it. Can't control it. When you love a person like that, you open yourself up to the possibility of moments of transcendent joy (the birth of a child) and crushing heartbreak (the revelation of betrayal). That's the nature of love.
In our time together, I have experienced the full spectrum of love with my wife. The dark moments have been pretty dark, and the light moments have been blinding. Love can be taken for granted, especially one that you've come to depend upon for a very long time. And then one day, like Merton, you find that love is gone, and you will never have its comfort again. Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
Love is complicated, and tonight I celebrate the complicated person who has been my partner in crime for over three decades. She has made me dance and driven me to my knees.
Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of his wife.