I talked to my Dad on Tuesday night. He told me that he was fitting into one of his favorite suits again (his treatments caused an unbelievable amount of swelling). He was feeling good. He said he looked great. Laughing at his perpetual confidence, I found myself back on the beach in Florida. Once, while we were on a business trip to Boca Raton, David and I brought Pat, David’s mother, with us; she loves tropical flowers, and she had never seen how beautiful Florida is. Because our hotel had prime beach space, my Dad asked us to meet him near the water. After unpacking, we made our way through the lobby, then walked down along the edge where the sand meets a boardwalk. Pat, covered up, maybe a little self-conscious, admired every plant in the hotel’s formal garden, every bird, everything we saw. Out in the ocean, people were boogie boarding, then I heard my Dad yelling over the waves. He was coming in from the water. Wearing only a Speedo which his stomach almost covered completely. So he looked, for a second, like he wasn’t wearing anything. He smiled, laughed, came running up to greet us. I think because the possibility existed that he was naked, Pat understood that whatever she was wearing was just fine. It felt for all of us that my father’s arms were open wide, wide enough to make us all comfortable, to let us all breathe deeply, laugh out loud.
Early Thursday morning, my brother called. Sleepy and out of sorts, I couldn’t get a good grip on the phone. My brother kept trying to tell me that my father had died. But I didn’t understand him. Then I just fell to the floor.
I had fallen once before because of my father. After his bypass, they let me into the recovery room. I suppose they did so because they thought I was vaguely medical. I hadn’t eaten much and when I saw how grey my father’s skin was, how small he looked on the table, how helpless, I passed out. A nurse caught me. I think they were more than a little annoyed. But my father laughed about it; we were in his room together just a few hours later.
The whole of our flight to Florida, I wanted to get off the plane. I think Henry and Alex sat on either side of me. Maybe not. I remember fiddling with some games for them. I also watched clouds out the window. So David must have held Alex. Henry was somehow next to him. Maybe.
I hate flying. I especially hate flying to Florida. Because the weather in the Gulf is so unpredictable. Awful really. When Henry was six, the two of us, because I had free tickets, flew to New Orleans to pick up a puppy. Two puppies; Jason wanted one. After we lost Jack, our dog we loved more than I can say, Henry read about all sorts of dogs on-line and decided that our family needed a Portuguese Water Dog. It made sense to me, but it turned out the nearest puppies were in New Orleans. So I went to New Orleans and picked up Frank, who mercilessly pestered everyone and ate rocks, clothes, toys, a couch. Frank’s breeder, Robyn, became our friend and a year later told us she had another litter. Somehow it seemed like it would be a good idea to get a companion for Frank. And I had two free tickets. So Henry and I ended up on a plane to New Orleans.
We ate a great lunch, hung around with Robyn, and played with puppies. During lunch, we talked about how worried everyone in New Orleans was starting to get about the storm in the Gulf. We also talked a lot about The Phantom Tollbooth (we gave Milo his name at that lunch). We headed back to the airport with our puppy and Jason’s. The puppies were so small; Henry was so small. I herded them all, carried both puppies in two sort of dog purses, and held onto Henry. Weather delayed our flight, then delayed it again. We had a horrible time getting into Houston. At the airport, people were running around, nervous; lots of flights were being cancelled. But I concentrated upon getting Henry and the puppies to our next gate. On the plane, our pilot warned us that it would be rough getting out of Houston. The flight from Houston to Austin takes a half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes. We were in the air almost three hours because we couldn’t get down. The storm in the Gulf, just south of Houston, was turning into Katrina that Friday night, and the winds of the storm were blowing directly between Austin and Houston. The sky outside the window was electric. The lights inside went out. We rocked, rolled; lightning flashed again and again. The puppies whimpered under the seat in front of us. I couldn’t get to them. The stewardess sat in her jump seat with her head in her hands. She was crying. Henry threw up so much we used the five airsick bags I could find in our row of seats. People were moaning around us. I kept telling Henry everything was going to be okay. And I prayed. But I knew our lives had no more staying power than a snapped branch. I could not make out exactly how I had done such a foolish thing as to take Henry on this flight.
Thinking about my father’s death is like falling headlong into that wind. I can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it.
A year later (or was it two; I don’t seem to have the sequence right), we were flying over the Gulf again. I can’t tell you much about the funeral. But somehow, from my brother’s phone call to our landing in Florida, my mind held open the possibility that what was going to happen, what had happened, could be avoided, could be fixed. That it was really terrible, but not the last word. That the plane would land safely.
Of course, it did. Someone, was it one of my brothers, was it the rabbi, was it David, thought we should go down in the line to look at my father in his casket. I had a hard time standing. I saw him through almost closed eyes for just a few seconds. I sat back down; we went through the rest of the service, and, after a few days, we came home.
I’ll tell you what I do now, so many years later. Every so often, something will happen; I will hear The Lion Sleeps Tonight or the words “rice pudding,” or I will feel my father’s smile in the way I hold my lips when I mean something like, “Do you really think that is true?” or “I’ll go along with you, but we both know that none of this makes any sense,” and I will be brought to tears. And I find myself praying to God, telling God that God knows how wonderful my father was, how much he loved me, how much he protected me and took care of me, and that, no matter about theology and whatever my father did or thought that was wrong, God must love him and keep him and take care of him. And I plead with God. And I hope I will see my father again someday with his arms open wide.
Praise for The Bleed of Heaven
“In The Bleed of Heaven, Kris Brown takes the reader on a gentle and moving spiritual journey. At the core of this book are insightful and poetic readings of texts and equally insightful and poetic accounts of her life. She creates an ingenious interplay between her readings of Luke and Acts and stories from her life. Each illuminates the other. And her gatherings at the end of each chapter are beautiful and full of hope.”
—Lewis Donelson, professor emeritus, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
“There is no one better qualified to take on the questions of Luke and Acts. Kris Brown brings the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor to this work. Hers is a wise and honest contribution to the conversation.”
—Sallie M. Watson, general presbyter, Mission Presbytery
About the Author
Along with running a research clinic dedicated to new treatments for mental illness, Kris Brown pastors the First Presbyterian Church in Smithville, Texas. She and her family live in Austin but have a farm not so far away.