In the deep recesses of my mind, tucked in a well-protected crevasse is Heartland. Memories of my boyhood reside there. It is a place where a boy’s picturesque view of his world makes time stand still. I do not often go there, but when I do a warm memory always welcomes me. Let’s go there now. A memory of my boyhood is waiting for us.
Up the street from the parsonage where my family and I live in Corydon, Iowa, there is a house where people go to die. My boyhood innocence limits my understanding of what this place means. I do, however, understand that every room of the house—except the kitchen and bathrooms—is full of beds occupied by people. More beds than any room or house should ever have. Each filling less space than every person deserves. It is the place where Anguish lives.
In what used to be a dining room, four bedridden people wheeze as they struggle to breathe, too many years of smoking have taken a toll. One wheezer guy sucks on a mask that connects to an oxygen tank. Upfront, a room that should be a parlor holds two men and a woman, each quite jaundiced. Their livers beyond repair. Upstairs, equally ill people occupy the bedrooms.
Throughout, people with tubes slowly draining disgustingly colored liquids from noses and other orifices stare forlornly at walls and ceilings. The lucky few confined to a bed by a window, gaze out at snow covered trees, shrubs, and grass. Wires connecting people to machines and machines to power outlets are strewn all over the rooms. A certain hazard for anyone trying to get about, but not a worry since nary a creature is stirring in the house.
Hair askew, teeth missing, gowns gaping—no one here is well kept. Cleanliness is an unaffordable luxury. Privacy is not an option. It is a final stop for all who occupy a bed. Not surprisingly, the stale smell of death—menthol, urine, vomit, and phlegm—permeates this place.
Yet here we are. It is Christmas day. My family—Dad, Mom, Mary, Martha, Pamela—and I have come a caroling. Without accompaniment, Dad leads the way. His strong tenor fills the front room and resonates throughout the house. The solid alto voices of my sisters Mary and Martha and Mom’s soprano complete the harmony. Pamela pitches in. My tiny six-year old voice and me struggle to keep up. Outside, my dog Major punctuates our renditions with a timely howl.
We begin with White Christmas. After which one time honored carol—Silent Night, We Three Kings, Away In The Manger—follows another. Song after song our voices grow stronger. Much to my astonishment, each fa-la-la-la brings a smile to a face that has forgotten how to smile. Every hark-the-herald returns hope to a heart that has given up. As we jingle-all-the-way, joy replaces joylessness.
As I return to Heartland, the flame ignited on that Christmas Day 57 years ago still burns strong in my heart. On that day Love visited Anguish. I have not forgotten the smiles, hope, and joy that a few notes, songs, and one tiny voice evoke. The flame is my constant reminder that the weakest in our society—toothless, jaundiced, struggling to breathe, and near-to-death—are the best teachers about our vulnerabilities and humanity. To learn these lessons we must go to the places where the weakest amongst us live. When we go there, death takes a holiday.
Note: This is the fourth post in the Heartland Series. Please click the follow button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.