July 15, 2018
By Thomas Glanville
Published June 8, 2018
On December 7, 2003, I married Lorraine, my fourth wife and we spent our honeymoon on the ship, Pride of America, cruising around the Hawaiian Islands. When we arrived back home, there was a letter from my son David waiting for us. Inside the envelope was a vinyl map of the world with an arrow lying on top. His message said that we were to tape the pointer to the map at a place in the world that we wanted to visit, and wherever that was; he would send us there. At first, we thought maybe Africa or England, but after we saw the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, we chose to go to Tuscany, Italy. We called David and told him our choice. He said, “Since we had to stop in Paris anyway, we should spend at least five days in Paris, and he would make all of the arrangements. He told each of us, “Only bring a backpack, a small carry on, black shoes, and dark clothes. Although you love America and T-Shirts, you don’t want to look like a tourist.”
David called back a couple of hours later and said, you’re booked into Paris with a four-hour layover in Detroit. Then, five days later you’re on a flight to Milan, Italy for ten days in a beautiful villa. We thanked him profusely. That evening I said to Loraine. “Maybe we could get my old friend John to meet us at the Hotel next to the Detroit airport and have a long lunch with us. I haven’t seen him and the kids in years.” Lorraine said, “Sure, that sounds like fun, call him.” I did, and John and Rose were excited to hear from me and couldn’t wait to see us. We agreed to meet at the Airport Hilton around three o’clock.
After a ten-hour, red-eye from Honolulu, we landed at Detroit-Metro and walked over to the Hilton. John and Rose were waiting for us in the lobby. We had lunch at the Hotel café and laughed and joked about old times when we used to work together.
I reminded him of the time he told me his house was getting too small for his growing family and he couldn’t afford to buy a bigger house. They had fifteen kids living at home, two-years-old through mid-twenties. I suggested that instead of looking for another house, he should put a second story on the house he has now. He agreed, and a couple of friends from work and I helped him on weekends and evenings. Two months later it was done.
He told the story about the time he invited me over to his parent’s house in a rough Detroit neighborhood. He wanted me to meet his mom and dad and experience a homemade Mexican dinner. We had a great time, they were wonderful people. When I left to go home, my pickup was up on blocks, and all four wheels were missing. We laughed about it this afternoon, but it sure wasn’t funny then. Two hours later, we said goodbye and returned to the airport.
We landed in Paris, got through customs, and were surprised to see David waiting for us at the airport. He had a taxi waiting to take us to a small hotel. Although we couldn’t check in, we could leave our baggage there, David called a taxi and we took off. I was surprised to see the Eiffel Tower just across the street from us. It looked like a series of steel lace tied together. I’d seen pictures of it, but never thought I’d be here staring at it. We took the elevator to the top of the Tower. Wow! What a view of Paris we had from there. We took the elevator down a few decks to a restaurant where we had lunch.
After a delicious lunch, David took us to a fancy chocolate shop in the neighborhood where he often shopped for paintings and all kinds of things. We bought a box of candy and munched on it during the subway ride to the famous Musee du Louvre. It was just across the street where we were staying. I held my camera high and took a picture of the Mona Lisa over the heads of a large group of tourists viewing her picture. The attendant yelled at me, “No photos are allowed!” We had a snack in the museum’s café and returned to our hotel.
David told us not to wear sneakers only black walking shoe and black clothes. Do not wear t-shirts or shorts that say “I Heart the USA”. Lorraine wore shoes she said looked like nun shoes. They were great for walking but she did not like them. The first nun she saw with shoes just like hers, they were off, and she bought some sexy red strapped shoes.
When we look in any store windows, we were not to lean or put our hands on the glass. The two things not to do was a sure sign you were a tourist. In France, I guess you do not want to look like a tourist. Just one look at me and you could sure tell I was a tourist.
David and Lorraine wanted to go to the bottom floor of the museum. Not me, I said. “I will just look around down here on the first floor.” Just people watching was fun. The bottom line for me; I did not like Paris very much.
After a five day stay in Paris, it was time to move on to Italy. We showed the customs officer our passports upon landing in the small Italian airport. He asked, “Where are the rest of your bags?”
“There is nothing else!”
“You came from America, and that is all you have? Get outta here!”
The lady at the rental car place had our car and a map waiting for us when we cleared customs. She also gave us explicit directions on how to get to the village of Greve and Le Maurice street, where the two-hundred-year-old villa, Le Maurice, was located. Lorraine selected it because it seemed to have a fascinating history. It was also recommended by the young couple who owned a ‘Make Your Own Wine” store in Kailua. They had just returned from their honeymoon there.
When we arrived at the villa’s gate, I rang the bell, and the two brothers, Elio and Gian Piero, the owners, welcomed us. After petting their dogs and engaging in some welcoming chatter, we asked, “Can you show us our rooms.”It was located just off the patio on the ground floor. It had a large common area, bedroom, and bath, as well as a small kitchen. The furnishings were elegant, and there was a vase of beautiful flowers from their garden on the table. We unpacked and settled in and relaxed. A couple of hours later, refreshed, we went exploring. There were spring flowers in bloom everywhere and the trees were just starting to bud. There was a large vineyard down in the valley, which we planned to visit in a day or two. That evening we sat in the garden and watched a colorful sunset and went to bed tired from our journey.
The first night the old bed had some silk type of sheets on it. We had just gotten in bed and when we pulled the sheet and blanket up we heard a big rip. We looked and the top sheet had a large rip in it. In the morning Lorraine said she had to tell the guys we ripped their sheet. She took out the book with English an Italian words. When she got to the word that meant rip was on a word that meant broke. We went to breakfast on the first morning she gave the note to Elio He could not figure out what the note said. The French lady who was staying there said,”Let me look.” She looked it over said, “The newlyweds broke the sheet.” Everyone clapped. It took me awhile to get Lorraine out from under the table.
At five-thirty, the sun, which was just peeking over the hill, woke me up. After a few minutes, I got up, leaving Lorraine to sleep in late. I grabbed a banana, a bottle of water and left a note saying that I had gone for a walk. Outside it was bright and cold, around fifty degrees, with dew on the vegetation and a light mist hanging over the valley. I left the villa behind and walked up the road, which got steeper as I climbed.
There was a plethora of wildflowers, mostly poppies, on both sides of the narrow, winding road. If I stopped and peered up the occasional, long cobblestone driveways, I could see the tile roofs of a few homes here and there, which were set way back off the road. Several of the houses had ancient masonry religious shrines with a picture of some lady and a baby where the driveways met the street. I called these pictures “An Italian mama and baby.”, There were dusty artificial flowers in some of them.
About a half-mile up the road, there was what appeared to be, an abandoned driveway with a big mound of weed-covered dirt blocking its entrance. The weeds were almost as tall as me, but if I pushed them aside with a stick, I could make out a good sized, red adobe cross. It was mounted on top of some kind of a masonry structure, which I couldn’t make out. The cross was nearly four-foot-high, and it leaned severely to the right. I wondered, what it was a part of, and why was it in this empty field? I snapped a picture of it and moved on.
A short way farther up the road, there was an ancient stone building that turned out to be the local winery. Its stone walls were covered with flowering vines. There were a dozen stone steps, which were built into the wall, leading to the top of the wall. I’d seen enough for one morning and decided I had best get back to the villa, Lorraine would be up soon. As I passed the abandoned driveway where I discovered the cross, I decided to return the next day to investigate further. I wondered, What else of interest was behind all those weeds and debris?
After breakfast, Lorraine and I drove to the little village of Grave. It sported a good sized, town square, which featured a church at one end, several non-descript stores, a bakery and a sidewalk cafe at the other end of the square with two and three-story apartments flanking the square. We bought a large loaf of olive bread and a hunk of cheese at the bakery for supper that night and took off to discover what we could find in the area. We followed the road east for several miles, but there was little of interest except for vineyards and farmland.
The next morning, I was up again at the break of dawn. I left a note, grabbed something to munch on and walked up to the winery. When I reached the cross, I stopped and stared at it. I couldn’t figure out why it was there, and what it was mounted on. When I reached the winery, I turned around and headed back to the villa. When I got to the old driveway in front of the cross, I looked to see if anyone was coming. I was alone, so I walked around the pile of dirt and stepped over the chain blocking the driveway.
When I flattened the tall grass, I could make out what looked like an old brick structure with this cross on top. I was curious, so I made my way over to it. It was like a shrine of some kind, about eight-foot-square, and ten-foot high.I looked in it and found a painting of an Italian mama, her baby and two angels on the back wall. The top half of the picture was in fair condition, but the bottom part was faded from the sun. There was an old mason jar laying in front of the painting or print; I couldn’t tell which. I wondered who built the shrine and why they would let this once beautiful structure fall into ruin like this? I cleaned up the interior of the shrine, tidied up the area around it, and piled all the trash up behind the bushes.
When I got back to the villa, I told Lorraine what I had found. She asked, “What was it that attracted you to it, and what motivated you to clean the place up?” I thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know.”
When I got up, I walked up to the winery as usual. When I got as far as the shrine, I entered the property and stood there looking at it for a long time before continuing on to the winery. On the way back, I picked some wildflowers and arranged them in the mason jar, which I had cleaned out, and filled from my water bottle. I also cleaned off the plastic cover protecting the painting from the elements. I thought, Why in the heck am I doing this? This is the first shrine I had ever seen. Loraine was right. Why am I attracted to it, returning again and again, cleaning it up, and even putting fresh flowers before the painting? I still didn’t have the answer to that. After breakfast, we took a long aimless drive. When we came to a road crossing, Loraine would say, “I wonder where that leads to?” I’d respond, “I don’t know, let’s find out. After a few miles, we ran into some horseback riders that waved us down. They ask where is so an so place. We told them “We don’t know, and furthermore, we don’t know where we are.”
A few miles further we came to what looked like an old castle. The roof had caved in and some of the stone stairs had fallen. There was a big cross that seemed like someone had put there after the castle had crumbled. We could see that the road continued on across the hills for miles. We hung around for a while then headed back to the villa. Before we left, I stood on top of the hill with my arms in the air just like in the Sound of Music.
On our fourth day in Tuscany, I woke up early and walked up to the winery as usual. On my return, I picked a handful of the many flowers of all kinds and colors that were everywhere. When I got to the shrine, I stopped and put the fresh flowers in the mason jar, and remained for a while, wondering why this shrine had me hooked. Was it because we were both old? When I returned to the road, I heard the sound of a motor scooter and stepped off to the side to allow an old man on a motorbike to pass me. I waved good morning to him, and he waved back. A few moments later, an old lady following him on her scooter rounded the curve. I waved at her also, but she gave me a dirty look and continued on.
That afternoon, we went to the market. When we entered the produce area, I saw a notice that stated we had to put on the gloves that were furnished before picking up any fruit or vegetables. I thought that was odd. A lady told us, “Whatever you pick up you can not put back down.” In other words, you touch it, you bought it. We bought lettuce and other things to make a salad and put them in bags. I walked around the aisles looking for salad dressing, and yelled at Lorraine, ”I wonder where the salad dressing is at?” Suddenly the store went silent, and a French lady said very loud “You can take the American out of America but can’t take the American out of them”.
We just smiled and put our purchases on the checkout counter. The clerk at the register started yelling at us in Italian. We didn’t know what he was all excited about until Someone in line behind us said we were supposed to have weighed the things we bought, selected the picture of the item on the screen, and applied the barcode sticker that popped up to the bag. He led us over to the produce scale babbling in Italian, then he asked in broken English, “Where you from?” Lorraine said, “Hawaii.” He smiled and said, “Oh, okay!” As we left the store, everyone clapped. It seemed we were the show for the day.
I slipped out of our room without waking Loraine and headed up the road. I heard the old man’s scooter coming, so I stopped and waited. When he came around the corner, I waved, and he waved back. The old lady was not too far back, I waved at her and just got the same dirty look. I thought if she came by tomorrow, I’d give her a Shaka, the Hawaiian sign for hello and thank you. I walked to the winery and again on the way back I picked some flowers for the shrine. On the way back to the villa I was thinking about the old lady and how I could make her wave or even smile. I wondered if the Shaka sign could possibly mean something dirty in Italy.
After breakfast, we went for a drive. We turned onto the road that meandered up towards the mountains and soon encountered a traffic sign indicating a one lane road ahead. When the light changed, we could continue up that section of road, but the cars coming down had to wait for us. About a half mile up the road, when we made a sharp turn to the left and then to the right, We notice there were people putting up tents in a church parking lot. We found a place to park and learned they were setting up for a big wine tasting event. We followed a brick driveway around to the back of the church where the local wineries were setting up tables in front of a long row of apartments. There were eleven tables holding bottles with signs describing the types of wines and the wineries they were from.
We walked over to the signup tent where some people were standing around. I paid the fee and they gave us two glasses with ribbons attached to put around our necks. The street was soon filled with happy people. Lorraine met a woman who spoke English, they talked for several minutes and decided to go around to the different tables together and sample the wine. That was fine with me and I said, “See you gals later.”
I walked around for a couple of hours and checked out the other tables on which were displayed local artwork and all kinds of things for sale. I needed a restroom, but I couldn’t find one anywhere close by. I entered a cafe on the corner and asked if I could use the restroom. The owner said, “No way, my friend, but if you make a reservation for lunch you can use it.” I made a lunch reservation and returned to where Loraine and her new friend were wine tasting. It was 12 o’clock, lunchtime when I found them sitting at a table sampling wine. If I had waited any longer I would have to pull them to the cafe in a wagon. Most folks smell the wine, swirl around in their mouths and spit it out. Their motto was if it goes in their mouth, it goes down, not out. We had a great lunch and headed back to the villa.
Our sixth morning here was misty and overcast. On the way back from the winery I picked some flowers and again stopped at the shrine. While I was there, something came over me, and I felt compelled to dismantle the shrine, and number the bricks so I could reassemble it on my return to Hawaii. When I returned to the road at the usual hour, I waited for the scooters to pass me. When I heard the sound of a motorbike coming down the hill, I smiled in anticipation. However, I was surprised when the old lady rounded the curve without the old man. I thought maybe he got up late or wasn’t working today. I gave her the shaka sign, and I was rewarded with a big toothy smile and a happy wave. It worked! When I got back to the villa, I told Lorraine I was thinking about bringing the shrine to Hawaii. She smiled and said, “You must be crazy! That would be a huge job. Have you figured out what the attraction is?” I told her, “Maybe part of it is, I just can’t let it fall into ruins, and it’s a shame that no one is taking care of it?”
Day seven, I went to the winery as usual. As I was about to turn around, I changed my mind and continued on to explore. The road had some big curves in it. The boys at the villa told me that walking through the narrow curves was dangerous. The cars and trucks drive way too fast. Although they toot their horns going into the curves, it can be hazardous.
Just then I heard honking. I stepped off the road, and a few seconds later a car came around the curve and passed me, at a fast speed. I could hear the sound of a big rig, blowing its air horn, as it entered the curve. I stepped onto the edge of the road to get out of the way. I looked down the steep bank at a grove of olive trees and grape vines in the valley below. As the truck approached me, it appeared that its oversize mirrors might clip me. I leaned hard against the cable guardrail, and the truck passed safely
With my weight against the old cable, it snapped, and I tumbled head first. I landed face down into a clump of tall weeds and thorns, which stopped my fall into the valley thirty feet below. At first, I was afraid to move, for fear of plummeting further into the valley below, but I knew I had to do something. As I wiggled and squirmed into the fetal position, the thorns dug into my head, arms, and shoulders. When I managed to roll over on my back, I spotted the end of the cable close by and grabbed it. I pulled myself out of the thorns and got my head pointed towards the edge of the road. I got up on my knees, and half dragged, half crawled back up to the side of the road.
I was so happy to be safe, I almost forgot that I had left a big red rose for Lorraine behind in the thorns. I said, “I picked that rose for Lorraine and I am not going back without it.” I grabbed the cable and slowly repelled off the hill to reclaim the rose. Back up on the road, I brushed off the leaves, twigs, and thorns and headed for the villa.
On the way back I picked some flowers to put in the jar in the Shrine.
When I got back to the villa, Lorraine exclaimed, “What happened to you? What a sight you are. You have grass in your hair, grass stains on your ripped shirt and trousers and thorns sticking to your clothes.” I gave her the rose and told her the story. She giggled and said, “You should look in the mirror before we go anywhere. I did and had shower and change clothes before going for a drive.
I got up at 5 a.m. grabbed a water bottle and a cookie and walked up to toward the winery. The old man and lady drove by on their scooter. I waved and they both waved back with a smile. I plucked some flowers and stopped at the shrine and cleaned up around and inside it. I knew we had only a couple of days left here. I considered taking just one brick if I couldn’t take them all. I searched the clearing, but none were lying about, nor were there any loose ones on the structure.
I returned to the villa, after breakfast we drove to one of the nearby walled cities. By the time we got there and parked, we were in need of a restroom. There was this odd-looking metal structure that looked like a spaceship in the center of the parking lot. As we approached it, a door opened, and an elderly couple stepped out. The door closed behind them, and we heard what sounded like a fan, and a pump turning on, followed by the sound of water. When the noise stopped, I could smell the sweet smell an air freshener.
The couple told us it was a restroom and you had to pay to use it. We followed the instructions and put in the coins. The door open and I said, “Ladies first.” The couple interrupted, and told me, “You can both go in together, it’s quite big inside. When we entered, the lights came on, and the door closed and locked. There was a stainless-steel toilet with no seat. I repeated, “Ladies first.” Loraine responded, “No, you go first.” When it was her turn, she sat on the toilet. and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, it’s cold, and hey, where is the toilet paper?” I told her, “There’s a slot on the wall with a sign showing that you flip the lid up and the toilet paper is right there. I heard the toilet flush. When she got up, she asked, “Where do you wash your hands? “I said, “There are two handholes under the picture of a faucet. Put your hands in there.”
“Something just dropped on my hands, what is it?”
“It’s soapy water, wash your hands in it. The rinse water will come on shortly followed by an air dryer.” When we left the contraption, the self-cleaning racket started. We just smiled at the lady waiting outside and explained that the noise was the restroom cleaning itself. as if we knew it all the time.
When we only had two days left in Italy! I got up late, and had breakfast with my sweetheart, instead of walking up to the winery and shrine. When the conversation turned to the shrine, I asked, “What do you think I could take back with me as a remembrance of the shrine?”
“Let’s go to town and buy the perfect flower vase for your shrine. Then, you pick some particularly beautiful flowers to put in it and leave it there overnight. On our last day here, you retrieve the vase, and we’ll bring it back to Hawaii with us as a memory. That way every time you look at the vase, you’ll think of the shrine.”
On my morning walk, I spotted a bunch of red poppies with a single white one sticking up in the middle, a little higher than the rest. I picked a dozen of them, including the white one, and put them in the memory vase, and placed it at the foot of the painting of the Italian mama and her baby. I cleaned up in and around the shrine again and returned to the villa.
The villa owners invited us, and three other guest couples to share a late dinner with them in their large kitchen on our last night in Italy. I watched Gian make noodles, and Elio cook the main course. There were six bottles of homemade wine on the table, each one a little different, and produced by our hosts. There were several kinds of bread to choose from, and a simple salad dressed with olive oil of course. The other couples were from different countries, but we all seemed to understand each other well enough. It was a splendid dinner and a wonderful last evening in Italy. Later during the night, about three a.m., a thunderous clap of thunder shook the villa, lightning lit up the sky, and the rain poured down in buckets. It lasted at least an hour or so.
I got up at five am as usual. Grabbed a snack and some water and went off to walk to the winery for the last time. It was another misty morning after the storm, and everything smelled fresh and earthy. I said my goodbye to the winery and threw the old man and old lady a kiss as they zoomed by on their scooters.
When I got to the shrine, I was alarmed by the mess I found there. The vase had blown over but didn’t break. The white flower lay crushed, dirty and wilted. The picture was askew on the back wall, but not damaged. I cleaned up the mess and put the fresh roses in the mason jar. I knew this is the last time I would be here. I decided to remove the roses from the jar and lay them directly in front of the painting of my Italian Mama and her baby. I had grown close to but still didn’t know the significance of the art, or who painted the picture which I now thought was maybe Mary, Jesus, and the Angels.
I said my goodbyes, gave my shrine a pat and returned to the villa with the vase in time for breakfast. When we were packed, we left our bags on the porch and made a quick trip to the town center to say Aloha to the shopkeepers we had befriended and polish off some fresh olive bread dipped in olive oil at the bakery. When we returned to the villa.
I told Lorraine, “Something tells me I need to return to the shrine once more.”
When I got there, the first thing I noticed was that someone had been here in my brief absence this morning and cut all of the high grass around the shrine and olive trees, revealing a low stone wall that was hidden before. I went over to the wall and sat down a few yards to the left of the shrine. When I gazed at the painting, I was startled to see a third angel painted into the painting that I had never seen before. It was below the mama and looking up at her. This angel was bright and clear unlike the faded painting surrounding it. When I got up and stood directly in front of the shrine, I could no longer see the third angle. I returned to where I was sitting, and there it was again. I did this several times with the same result. I returned to the villa and excitedly told Lorraine what I saw. She asked, “How could that be?” I said, “Come with me. You have to see this.”
We entered the recently cleared courtyard containing the shrine and stood directly in front of the painting. I asked, “How many angels do you see?”
I told her, “Follow me to the stonewall over there and tell me how many angels you see.” Without hesitation, she said, “There is a third angel near the bottom of the painting. Loraine walked back and forth a couple of times and confirmed what she saw. I asked her, Are you sure? You’re not just telling me what you think I want to hear are you?”
“Oh no. I saw it. No question about it. I think that your infatuation with this shrine, and now this, must be some kind of sign from God.”
We returned to the villa in silence thinking about what we just saw, yet not understanding it. It wasn’t just the third angel that baffled us, but it was the whole thing. It was the way I was drawn to the shrine, how my infatuation with it grew stronger every day to the point that I took temporary ownership of it and worked diligently to keep it presentable for the Blessed Mother and Jesus who were portrayed in the painting. Then there was the nasty thunderstorm early this morning that wreaked havoc on the shrine but did little damage other than knocking the painting askew and dumping my memorial vase over. I’m surprised the vase didn’t break, and I wonder why only the single white flower wilted and died? That was certainly strange. And who cleared the courtyard this morning. I haven’t seen any other evidence that anybody had been on the property the entire time we were here.
We loaded our baggage into the rental car and said goodbye to the boys and the dogs. We stopped for lunch in town and then headed for the airport and home. After we had checked in and got our boarding passes, we had a two-hour wait to board the plane. We looked around the gift shop, where Loraine picked up and thumbed through a coffee table book of famous Italian painters. She poked me and exclaimed, “I found it! Thom, I just found it!”
“What did you find?”
“Look at this picture on page nine-eight. This painting is the same one that hangs in your shrine. It says here that it’s a famous painting of the Madonna and child by Filippo Lippi. The original hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence. Look here, “There are only two angels in the painting.”
It was a long flight back to Hawaii with two stops. When we finally got home and settled in, Lorraine picked up our mail at the post office. On the way home, she sorted through the mail and handed me a letter addressed to me. I recognized the address. It was John’s address, my old pal back in Michigan. I told Lorraine that something must have happened to brother John. They had never written us before.
When I opened the letter, it was from Rose. She wrote that John had passed away at nine a.m. on April twelfth. I knew they were very Catholic and had sent all of the kids to Catholic schools, so I decided it would be appropriate if I wrote her about my recent experience at the shrine. I wrote about everything that happened at the shrine in a long letter, leaving nothing out. I pointed out that the time of John’s death was three a.m. where we were in Tuscany, and that was the very hour of the horrendous thunderstorm.
She wrote back that my letter moved her deeply and made her feel better. She just knew that her John was in the arms of the Italian Mama. She added, “You might not believe what I’m about to write, but the day of the funeral I placed fifteen red roses, one for each child, and one white rose for John on his coffin. I am sure that Angel you saw in the painting was John, saying goodbye.”
Now it all seems to make sense why the shrine was calling me. God rest Brother John.
*** The End ***
June 15, 2018
Anthony Bourdain is dead!
An inspirational comment
I was deeply moved when I learned that Anthony Bourdain had left this earth by his own hand on June 8, 2018. I didn’t want to think about it, but I couldn’t push it away, it kept coming back.I asked several close friends, “What do you think about Anthony Bourdain’s death?” They responded with, “What a terrible, selfish thing to do.” “What an ass, he left a twelve-year-old daughter and a significant-other behind to deal with that mess.” “Why? He had everything?” “He’s a coward. I hope he goes straight to hell, good riddance!”. I didn’t want to hear any of that crap. So, when another friend quietly said, “Don’t judge him, until you have walked in his shoes.” That comment intrigued me and I thought, perhaps my friend was right, I need to think this through.
A few days later I was at my dermatologist’s office for a four-hour appointment to remove a small skin cancer. The two surgeries took about a half-hour. I spent the rest of my visit in the waiting room with a dozen other elderly Haole (Hawaiian for foreigner) patients sitting around trying to politely ignore the white gauze patches on each other’s faces. When my thoughts inevitably turned to Mr. Bourdain, I bit the bullet and reluctantly decided to examine my reaction to his death.
Although we had never met, I knew a lot about him from reading his books and watching many of his TV episodes. The two things that shaped my admiration for Anthony Bourdain was his book, “Kitchen Confidential,” a sometimes, hilarious expose of the New York restaurant business. The second was a stunning episode of his “No Reservations” show, filmed in Beirut, Lebanon in 2006 during the Israel-Lebanon war. It was an incredible feat of journalism. As the camera captured the hysteria of bombs falling on Beirut, the show morphed into a tense, real-time war documentary. A fearless, steel-nerved side of Anthony Bourdain emerged, took charge and captured you, as you witnessed his escape to a U.S. Warship. The show won an Emmy.
I admired him, not only for being a world-class storyteller but for his shameless acceptance and portrayal of himself as a working alcoholic and druggie. There were no excuses or explanations forthcoming for his behavior. He lived his life as a fearless free spirit who did what he wanted to do and did so with unmitigated gusto. He wasn’t any boy scout, but then, he wasn’t a devil either. He was Anthony Bourdain living large. He was a cocky, funny, insightful, sometimes foul-mouthed, sometimes outspoken, man of the world and its kitchens. He spoke and wrote what he thought, there were no filters with Anthony. Sure, his comments about the outrageous people and situations he encountered in his life were sometimes unflattering, but he thought that was funny stuff and delivered it as such. Some of the recipients of his barbs characterized him as a mean, angry cynic. I didn’t buy that, Anthony always told it like it was, he let the chips fall where they may, and allowed the truth to entertain.
I recognized glimpses of myself in the way he saw the world, lived his life, spoke, and wrote. I somehow knew that I too had a jillion, entertaining stories to tell and if Anthony Bourdain could shoot from the hip and be successful, so could I. I didn’t need to go to finishing school and re-invent myself as a polished, articulate novelist, I just needed to get my stories out there and I too would do well. Stories filled with humor, enthusiasm, odd characters, and insight. That was the gift that he left me.
Enough of my grousing about dear, dead Anthony, He’s now deader than yesterday’s fried chicken, and will soon be forgotten by all but the few of us whose lives he touched. This story isn’t about Anthony Bourdain, it’s about me and my perspective about suicide. Up until today, I didn’t even want to think about why these folks did what they did. Anthony’s death changed that because I cared about him, and what would become of him in the after-life?
My first encounter with a suicide occurred when I was about twelve. I overheard my parents whispering about my auntie who overdosed and left the world at a young age. My father indicated she was a cowardly, shameful, embarrassment to the family. In 1984, A good friend, and talented physician, Dr. Fredricks, blew his brains out on the beach a block from my office after his morning hospital rounds. In 1994, my friend Jack Temple, who lived next door to Kurt Cobain on the shores of Lake Washington, called and said that young Kurt Cobain committed suicide in his home next door.
I was surprised to hear that funny man, Robin Williams, took his own life in 2014. I remembered occasionally seeing him enjoying his morning coffee and reading the newspaper outside of Kailua’s Kalapawai Market. Robin’s Hawaii home was in the exclusive Lanakai neighborhood, just down the street.
As I thought about these folks, it occurred to me they shared a few similar traits. They were all Charismatic, brilliant, hard-working, energetic type “A” personalities. One of the common characteristics they shared was a high level of creativity. They could create something beautiful out of the mundane. Artistic ability was always one of the multiple talents common to each of them. Some were superstars or high-profile celebrities, others shunned notoriety. They used their God-given talents to amass fortunes which separated them from us ordinary folks and allows them complete freedom to do as they please with little or no boundaries. You would think it couldn’t be that tough to be a star; hobnobbing with other celebrities, having tons of money and all kinds of folks clamoring to be your friend. Apparently, there is a dark side which often is an integral part of that lifestyle. Their world is not our world, and maybe that is the double edge sword that causes them to flail out for something which they can neither understand nor achieve.
Drugs and alcohol often fuel successful people’s dark sides. It starts with a harmless gulp of Jack Daniels behind the school, followed by their first puff of Pakalolo, (Marijuana). By the time they have risen to the apex of their careers, the subtle increase in drug and alcohol consumption has inevitably altered their brain’s circuitry. and they are no longer the same person. Mommy dearest is now a bitch. The personal demons that have grasped control of their minds continue to twist and distort reality until it becomes an elusive seductress. Paranoia, unfounded fears, and intense anxiety erode their self-esteem and their lives become a lie. They descend deeper and deeper into an irreversible depression. When they realize the demos are there to stay, they know the future may be even more terrifying than the present. Their search for escape inevitably leads them to consider suicide, seemingly the only way out. Nothing else matters; lovers, family, friends; nothing.
A friend confided in me that he had once seriously considered suicide. He told me, “I was into whiskey, weed, and heroine pretty heavy. I had just lost my job and my longtime girlfriend. She told me she loved me, but I had to choose between her and the drugs. I knew I couldn’t stop the drugging and boozing. I was devastated. I loved her, and my life without her was a waste of breath. Knowing I couldn’t stop the drugging and drinking, I descended into a deep depression. I decided to get high, and off myself. I didn’t dwell on how this would impact my girlfriend, family, and friends. I didn’t care if it wrong, it was my life, and I was going to end it. I was done, it was over, and I was out of here. I passed out before going through with it. The next morning when I woke up, I forgot how pissed off I was.”
Many of these folks who choose suicide, do so in an altered state of mind. So, what becomes of their souls? Where do their souls go? Mary, the Mother of Jesus, emphatically told the Fatima children there is a Heaven, a purgatory, and a hell, and that’s where we go when we die. When I was growing up in the fifties, the church implied that those who choose suicide went to hell. Recently, they have changed their position, and subtlety suggest perhaps that is not necessarily so.
Recently, Pope Francis made this comment regarding suicide, “Some of the victims (of pedophile priests) have been driven to suicide. These deaths weigh on my heart, on my conscience and that of the whole Church. To their families, I offer my feelings of love and pain and humbly, I ask forgiveness.” Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that God is a merciful God and as such, I’m sure mercy, love, and forgiveness will play a role in His reception of the tortured souls who take their own life.
A Catholic Paper printed an article recently about suicide, I paraphrase, “God understands the dark, hopeless place these tormented people inhabit. Some, He will welcome as a mother would welcome her newborn to her breast for the first time.”
I recently learned of a holy woman whom God gave the gift of being able to communicate with souls in purgatory. In regard to suicide, she once wrote, “When people ask me, ‘Are there any souls of those who committed suicide in purgatory?’ I respond, Yes, certainly, but not all are there.”
We all need to be mindful that God created us, and our lives belong to Him, not to us. Therefore, it was clearly wrong for Anthony Bourdain to take his life, but it’s up to a merciful, all-knowing God to pass judgment on Anthony. We can only pray that God has a place in his house for a master storyteller.
This soliloquy brought a long overdue closure for me on this difficult subject, and I hope it will for those of you who have read it. In the words of Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?”
May God have mercy on your soul, Anthony Bourdain!
*** THE END ***
photo credits: Catholic Exchange, Jeannie Ewing
Bill Tammeus, how clergy help…
June 1, 2018
SOMETIMES IT’S A WAKEUP CALL! Part II
I survived the triple bypass, recovered, and they sent me home a few days later. I was doing fine until about a week after I got home when I took a turn for the worse. For no apparent reason, I was having difficulty breathing. My feet and legs were swollen. I was and coughing and wheezing badly. That night I was unable to keep anything in my stomach, including my meds. When my temperature hit a hundred, Elizabeth called the doctor. He told her, “I’ll stop by in the morning. In the meantime, make sure that he’s keeping down his medicine. If his temperature goes any higher, call 911.”
About two a.m., I felt an electric-like jolt shake my upper body. I awoke with a start and curled up in the fetal position. I could feel my body starting to slip over to the other side. It was a weird sensation. My breathing became shallow, and I could feel my pulse rate slowing. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and the ever-present pain was no longer in the forefront.
I felt a short wave of warmth sweep through my chest, followed by a pleasant, lingering numbness. A sense of calm and peacefulness settled on me. I just wanted to sleep. My brain slowed down time and intertwined reality with shadowy hallucinations until they became one. Defining moments in my life, both good, and bad flooded into my mind, as hundreds, maybe thousands of memories, raced through my mind, each one replacing the previous one in milliseconds, and there was no going back.
My slide into eternity slowed and then stopped. An unpleasant piercing sound interfered with the slideshow in my head and annoyed me. Suddenly, I felt something or somebody shaking me. That annoyed me further. I whispered, “Go away, and leave me alone!”
I was in the very private act of withdrawing from life, and I wanted and needed my space. As the shaking and noise continued, my sense of euphoria slipped away and was replaced by a voice. It was Elizabeth’s voice. I could make out bits and pieces of what she was saying. It sounded like, “Please don’t die. I need you!”
I felt terrible for Elizabeth. I didn’t want to leave her. However, I was pretty sure that I was on my way out, and there was little I could do about it. I opened my eyes a crack, as Elizabeth tugged and pushed me into a sitting position. Despite my weak protestations, she then yanked me out of bed and helped me take a dozen steps into the living room where I dropped in a chair, exhausted.
Elizabeth’s intervention slowed my spiral into the unknown, but it also awakened the pain that was racking my body. She covered me with a quilt, put an ice pack on my brow and forced me to swallow my medicines. All I wanted to do was to return to that twilight zone where there was no pain, and I had gotten a glimpse of my mom. Elizabeth had other ideas. She forced me to stay semi-alert throughout the rest of the night, as she prayed and waited for the dawn and the arrival of the doctor.
As the early Monday morning sun rose in the East and lit up the living room, I was slumped in my chair, zonked out on pain medicine and drifting in and out of lucidity. I thought I heard someone knocking at the door. That familiar tap, tap, tap signaled to me that it was Jesus out there knocking on my door once again. It had to be Him. I was apprehensive and fearful, but I knew that I must open the door. I whispered, “Jesus. Please come in!”
I heard a commotion at the door and closed my eyes. Then, He was at my side. Jesus had a distinct, but faint, odor of spaghetti, meatballs, and garlic. I liked that. It broke the ice, and my fear subsided. I didn’t dare to open my eyes. I wasn’t worthy to look Jesus in the eye. It didn’t matter because I could feel His presence. It was a powerful sense of pure love, agape love. I started to tell Him how sorry I was for so many things, but He hushed me. He already knew what was in my heart. There was no need for words. He forgave me for everything, spoken and unspoken. Then, Jesus was gone. I sighed and fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up a couple of hours later, Elizabeth looked me over carefully and took my temperature without saying anything. When she was satisfied I was all right, she sat next to me and said, “Okay Jake, what happened? You were a little scary this morning.”
“The only thing I remember for sure was that I heard somebody knocking at the door. I knew it was Jesus, and I told Him to come in. I don’t have the words to describe what happened after that. I am now at peace with my Maker. A wonderful sense of joy fills my heart, and my pain is gone. This is the best that I have felt in a week.”
“That was Fr. Michael at the door, Jake. He came by to bless the house. When he saw you slumped in the chair and mumbling to yourself, he was alarmed. He went down to his car and got his little black bag and administered the last rites to you. Do you remember that?”
“No, all I remember is time stopped when Jesus was with me.”
“Fr. Michael also anointed me with the ‘oil of the sick.’ Then he blessed the house and the cats.”
Dr. Moore came by later that morning as he promised. He examined me and told Elizabeth, “Jake appears to be on the mend. His temperature is normal, and he no longer exhibits most of the symptoms that you described over the phone. Did you take him to the ER?”
“No, but his symptoms improved greatly after the parish priest gave him the last rites early this morning.”
“That’s just remarkable. Somebody is certainly watching over your husband. If the symptoms return, call me.”
SOMETIMES IT’S A WAKEUP CALL!
When I was a young lad, I entered a Catholic seminary where I spent nearly four years studying to be a priest. Late one night, I pleaded with God to give me a sign that I should continue to the priesthood or do something else with my life. I sat in the dark, looking up at the Heavens for three frustrating hours, waiting for His answer. When it was apparent that no response was forthcoming, I concluded that God had no interest in me. I angrily shouted at the heavens, “If you have nothing to say to me my Lord, I’ll have nothing further to say to you either. I’ll see you on judgment day.” I left God and the seminary behind the next morning. For nearly fifty years, I never looked back or uttered a meaningful prayer. As time passed, I came to understand that it was a mistake to abandon my Maker but I had neither the courage nor the motivation to correct the wrong.
In 2012, my doctors discovered I had an advanced stage of prostate cancer. They scheduled me for chemo and radiation therapy, but they made it clear that the prognosis was poor, and I would probably succumb to the disease within two years, sooner if it metastasized. My wife, Elizabeth and I were devastated by the news but it wasn’t our first brush with death. Elizabeth knew what to do. She went to work and got friends, family, and several prayer groups praying for me. I went through the five classic stages of impending death. I first denied it could kill me. Then when I understood that it certainly could, I got angry and yelled at God. “How could you do this to me!” Elizabeth settled me down and saying, “I know that your seminary day’s issues with God still plague you. I have never pried into that, and I’m not going to do so now, but I beg of you, whatever they are, get over them! God may be knocking on your door Jake, let him in! Get down on your knees and pray long and hard to the God you have distanced yourself from these many years if you want to live.” I knew she was right but I wasn’t ready to do that. I slipped into a depression, accepted the possibility of death, and I hoped that Elizabeth and her prayer groups would prevail without me having to reconcile with my Maker.
Nine months later, we received the results of a PET Scan. I was cancer free or at the very least, my cancer was in remission. Elizabeth and I celebrated the remarkable news with dinner at Hy’s Steakhouse in Honolulu that evening. We were both ecstatic beyond words. I toasted Elizabeth and all those whose prayers made this happen. I knew in my heart that God had rewarded her for storming the Heavens in my behalf and I was enormously grateful for the mercy He had shown to me, His prodigal son. but I was still not yet ready to return to God.
A few months later during lunch with a client at my favorite Italian restaurant, I started experiencing chest pains which I initially attributed to the spaghetti and meatballs. I decided to go home, take some Rolaids and a short nap before returning to work. When I was almost home, I broke out into a cold sweat, and my vision went blurry. I swung into a nearby hospital, checked myself into the emergency room, and called Elizabeth. After a series of tests and a treadmill electrocardiogram, the cardiologist told me I had severely clogged arteries and she was sending me via ambulance to Honolulu General for a triple bypass.
The next morning when the orderly came to deliver me to the operating room, Elizabeth asked me if I had made my peace with God yet?
“No! I’m not ready to do that yet.”
“Jake, you promised me that you would and this is the second time Jesus has knocked on your door in less than a year. He wants you back.”
“I know sorry, Love.”
As they wheeled me down the hall, it occurred to me that I was nearly a hundred pounds overweight and clearly a poor candidate for heart surgery. I thought, I could die on the operating table in the next few hours. What will become of me? Is there a place for a reasonably good man like myself, who had issues with his maker and hasn’t said a prayer in fifty years? I didn’t know, but I hoped so. Then I remembered The Blessed Mother had told the children at Fatima there were only three places in the afterlife. There was a Heaven, from whence She came, a purgatory for those souls cleansing their souls in preparation for entry into Heaven, and the fires of Hell, which was the destination of the damned. I didn’t know where I would end up but I was still not ready to let my maker in.
When they rolled me into the operating room, I got my first glimpse of the bright lights over the operating table and the covey of doctors and nurses dressed in blue gowns, caps and masks patiently waiting for my arrival, I panicked. I realized this was the real deal. Death was no longer a fuzzy concept that I spoke of with false bravado; this place and these people presented the stark reality of death and it wasn’t a pretty picture.
I thought about what Elizabeth said; She was right, my foolish, bull-headed estrangement from God had gone on way too long. I needed to squash my pride and somehow summon the courage to seek God’s forgiveness. As the anesthesiologist put his hand on my arm, I thought, hang on, give me a moment; this may be my last chance to end this absurdity. Then, I felt a brief wave of euphoria sweep over me and everything went black.
*** End of part one of two episodes. ***
Stay tuned for part two on June 1st.
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