Variations on a Theme
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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005


Editor’s note: Six weeks after our first “variations on a theme” feature, we’re at it again. This time the theme is “excuses.” Thanks to everyone who wrote in.

* * *

I loved my granddad fiercely. Even at 14 I still loved it when he teased me. So when he came home from the hospital after being diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer I couldn’t wait to see him.

I raced into Granddad’s bedroom and stopped dead in my tracks. My grandfather, quiet and gray, lay sleeping in his bed. He had an oxygen mask over his face and tubes snaked from under his blankets into strange, fluid-filled bags attached to his footboard. I hardly recognized him.

The next time the family went to visit Granddad I feigned a stomachache. I just couldn’t stand the idea of seeing him like that again.

After the first time, it got easier to find excuses not to visit my grandfather. “I have to study,” I told my dad. Or, “Basketball practice will run late tonight.” While Daddy was visibly saddened by my decisions, he never pushed me to go.

My granny, though, my mother’s mother, did push me. “You need to go visit your Granddad, sweetie,” she said. “You need to spend some time with him while you can.”

I ignored the implication. “I’ll go next week, Granny. I promise.”

When I finally made good on that promise eight weeks later, it was too late. By the time we arrived at his house after a half-hour drive, Granddad was dead.

I sat in our car and wailed. My heart was broken. And, through my own fault, I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye.

I am a campus minister now and always tell my students that, while I cannot explain why tragedies befall us, God can bring good from any situation. I look back and recognize how God used my grandfather’s illness and my reaction to create a gift in me: I am good with those who are dying.

I have kept many deathbed vigils over the years. I have been blessed each time. My best friend, Marianne, awakened from a coma hours before she died and shared her last conversation ever with me. And when my grandmother died three years ago, I was holding her hand.

Signal Mountain, Tenn.

* * *

I live on an eight-acre hui [commune] with 12 families, about 50 folks. We have gardens and orchards and a stream flowing through the land, a playground and a preschool. Coconuts, bananas, avocadoes, lemons, limes, guava, lilikoi, persimmon, oranges, cherimoya, soursop, custard apples, rose apples and humans grow well on our rich soil and pure well water. Three dogs live here too, and cats of two varieties: family pets and the feral cats that live in the gulch that divides our land.

My home faces the gulch, so I see a variety of cats come and go, feeding on mice, geckos and so on. Now I don’t like the idea of pets dependent on humans for their food. But the cat outside my door obviously was pregnant and hungry. So I fed her ... and fed her ... and fed her till one day she disappeared and didn’t show up for meals. I knew she was giving birth under the house. Two months later, she was at my screen door with four gorgeous kittens.

I told myself I’d feed the whole family of cats until later, when the kittens were grown enough to fend for themselves. The kittens followed their mother in a row everywhere she went ... until one day the mother vanished and left me with her offspring to nurture.

She had let me pet her and stroke her back. Twice she scratched me when I didn’t put the cat food out promptly. I got angry at her and showed her my blood. That’s when she meowed her reply loudly, taking her leave of me and her small family.

After feeding the kittens for three months, I stopped, giving myself the excuse they were grown enough now and it was time for them to become self-sufficient like their mother. They still gather on my step. Now I put out a bowl of milk when I feel generous. They have studied me face to face and gotten the message. Tough love has arrived; I stopped buying cat food.

But they won’t go away like their mother did. They look at me as though to say, “Daddy!”

Haiku, Hawaii

* * *

My daughter just went food shopping to clear the day for my writing and allow no excuses.

There are no other writers in my family. When I used to say I had paperwork to do as a teacher, everyone would roll their eyes. You could hear the silence shout: “What an excuse to use so you don’t have to go sleigh riding!” (Report cards were due -- cross my heart.)

Not long ago, I took a poetry workshop and said I couldn’t create the time to write, as the dust kept piling up at home. The poet laureate looked me straight in the eye and said very seriously, “Dust ... what’s that?”

I’ve read about other writers who get up in the wee hours of the morning, before work, to write. If I did this, I’d never get to work. That is no excuse; it’s a fact.

My son tells me that I like the idea of being a writer but not the writing. But when I don’t write, there is an empty space in me that cries. So I continue to put words on paper, trying hard not to use the excuse of stopping to sharpen my pencil.

Now my daughter is back home, and I find myself trying to justify why I cannot give any more time to writing this article, as the groceries have to be put away.

Staten Island, N.Y.

* * *

“What were you thinking?” my wife fired at me. “How could you? I can’t believe you did that.” Every time I tried to answer a question, she sliced through it with another volley.

The occasion for this battle was my daughter Meaghan’s graduation-from-college party. I had the bakery make a large carrot cake. The baker asked me if I would like carrots on the cake and I said, “That sounds good.” Perhaps I said that too enthusiastically because he put huge carrots on the cake, barely leaving space for the words “Congratulations Meaghan, Love, Mom & Dad.”

My wife growled, “What about her friends? You left off Kristin and Erica’s names. I wrote this out for you.”

“I lost the note,” I said. “So I just put Meaghan’s name. Besides, I’m sure that Kristin and Erica’s parents will be bringing something for them.”

My wife’s beautiful brown eyes flashed. I had to try hard not to smile because I thought she looked cute when her Irish temper erupted like Mount St. Helens.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she snapped again.

Graduation day arrived. It was steaming hot sitting in the football stadium. Fortunately, Ben and Jerry gave an impressive, humorous anti-war speech, pointing out to the graduates that 50 cents of every dollar they paid in taxes would go to the military and to war. Half of the graduates and their families clapped as Ben and Jerry criticized President Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The other half booed in disagreement with the speakers.

I smiled and thought perhaps all the public controversy over the war would take our minds off the carrot cake.

Southampton, Mass.

* * *

I have been wrestling for years with the need to get out of an unhealthy job situation. There was always a good excuse not to go: It’s a good job (it was!); the people are nice; great benefits. Over time though, many of these evaporated in comparison to the reasons to go: The job has changed; management has become hostile; morale is low; the drive is too far. I still found my excuses to stay, though. I can’t find another job; I’ve been there too long to leave. It finally got to the point where even my own body was telling me it was time to go, and I still refused to listen. When I became beset with odd aches and numbness that kept me from even getting to work, I arranged to work at home -- I soldiered on!

What I finally had to come to grips with, and what is finally leading me out of this job, was recognizing the real reason (not excuse) I kept staying: I was afraid. While we come up with many excuses for not taking action, our true reason, which we already know if we think about it for just a minute, is fear -- fear of repercussions. In my case, it was fear of being labeled a failure or a quitter. This, after driving three hours a day for 10 years to a job that at one time won me many accolades and much recognition in my field!

I’m finally facing my fears and getting out.


* * *

It was a busy, cold November night at the homeless shelter clinic. The problem was Napolean’s foot, which he said he “sliced two months ago.” The gangrene was widespread, with bone visible through the decayed tissue of his toes. He needed to go to the hospital immediately and have part if not all of his foot amputated.

Napolean refused to go to the area hospital for the indigent. I was the nurse, and I arranged for two bus passes that would get him to a different facility. That should be enough, I thought. A homeless man can be a dangerous person, I don’t have taxi money, I’m tired and I don’t have time to find out the reasons why he won’t go to the hospital. Yes, bus passes are enough.

But Napolean was on the streets in the morning after refusing to follow medical advice. I’ve never seen him again.

My excuses for not helping Napolean seemed quite rational, yet I was left with a list of “should haves.”

Westfield, Ind.

* * *

Our parish did things with love and social justice. What wasn’t done, we found a way. We didn’t make excuses.

But the excuses started on our new priest’s first Sunday. He preached a loud and proud sermon about himself. We excused it, thinking he was new and insecure.

He followed this for months with multiple judgments on our building, attitude, actions, words and former priest. His excuse? He was “CEO” and “following the bishop’s orders.”

One day he scolded that the least anger might ruin the Eucharist for all communicants. He said he was “enforcing the rules.” He changed our chapel chairs from a circle to rows, using Vatican II as excuse. He couldn’t join us to share peace during Mass and “turn his back on Jesus.” (Imagine our surprise -- we thought Jesus was among us, as well as on the altar!)

Eighty people met in protest. We gave him signed and written results. He promised to meet with us and didn’t.

Then, we excused ourselves ... from Mass, meetings, collections and events. Ill parishioners even excused themselves from dying until they knew he would not be there.

After a while, we returned to our work. He still tears down what we had, damages form, function, community and what our former priest had accomplished.

We continue to do Christ’s work with no excuses.


Upcoming topics
Topic Due
Getting fired Jan. 15
Sleep Feb. 15

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005

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