- Published: July 28, 2015
When I retired from Portland First United Methodist Church, one of the things the congregation did for me was create a “bowl of good thoughts” wrapped in festive ribbons.
Inside were colorful slips of paper on which people had written notes of encouragement, appreciation, and well wishes. They were folded into interesting shapes, and seeing those pieces of paper triggered a memory within me.
When I was a young pastor with a small congregation in a rural community, resources and volunteers were scarce. We were planning a Vacation Bible School for the summer. We could not afford the real curriculum provided by our denomination, pre-printed worksheets and expensive craft projects. For sale were miniature aquariums with prefab Jonahs chasing lifelike whales … all for the low, low price of $9.99. Instead, we had to rely on our own creative resources.
I am not sure what triggered the thought, but I suggested origami. For the cost of a few pieces of colored construction paper, we could make hundreds of paper cranes to string across the front of the sanctuary. Tack on a Bible verse, and you had a craft project at virtually no cost.
I went to the public library and checked out every book on the art of origami. Origami is the art of folding paper into shapes, generally having to do with nature. Some of the projects were stunning … dragons breathing fire, a school of fish, a butterfly with wings that move. Almost all of the projects were beyond the skills of young children. Perhaps I should say, “Beyond my skills.” But with some perseverance I found an origami crane that could be made with a few simple folds. In fact, it looked so simple that I did not bother with a trial run.
The day of Vacation Bible School origami project I distributed a piece of colored construction paper to each child, and a set of the instructions for “Origami: Simple Crane.” First, fold your paper in half. I was delighted and as self-satisfied as the children. The next steps, however, proved less obvious, “… score upper left corner by one quarter and reverse fold until the quarter page becomes one sixteenth, with parallel folds on the opposite side.
The tension in the room rose as chubby fingers struggled with the instructions and eye-hand coordination. There was screaming, crying, and shredding of paper until one child put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s okay, pastor. Just be patient.” I threw my shredded paper into the air and said in a calm voice, “Today, we will be making paper airplanes.” A child raised his hand with a question. My response was, “No Charlie, the disciples did not travel by airplane.”
It has been strange living with a diagnosis of “inoperable cancer” with a side of rare bone disease. Going on hospice made perfect sense. It would give me access to high level narcotics for pain relief, and the support of other specialized medical professionals. I resisted hospice, because in my mind hospice happened at the very end, and mostly involved nurses at the bedside, drawing the curtains to darken the room and shushing people; “Can’t you see the patient is dying?”
Hospice for me is quite different. No one is quite sure how close I am to death. Some days I wonder, “Why am I not a work today?” Other days I wonder, is this my last?
Recently, I was struck with a profound thought, “I don’t know how to die.” In seminary, we touched briefly on grief in pastoral counseling, and learned a clever mnemonic device for the five stages of grief: DAB-DA. Picture Fred Flintstone crying, “Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.”
Grief is a response to loss. During my life I have had many significant losses: the ability to walk, independence, my vocation … my hair … and hence, I have cycled through those stage over and over again. The elements of the process are still there and will continue to be there.
The loss of my father to leukemia was a devastating one.
In 1988, my father was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The logical decision was that he, along with my mother, should come and live with me in my parsonage in Donald Oregon. I did not begrudge that choice. In fact, I romanticized it. He would stay in the guest bedroom and the afternoon sun would filter through the large cottonwood trees in my backyard. I would sit at his bedside and read to him excerpts from Victor Hugo’sLes Miserables. He would die quietly with a Bible laid across his chest.
“I can’t do this,” I whispered to myself.
“I can do this, dad,” I said to him.
“Go get someone to help you,” he demanded.
“I don’t need help.”
He was heavy and sat awkwardly in the wheelchair. I tilted it back and tried to push him up the steps. If I could only achieve an ideal leverage, it should be easy. When I nearly tipped him over he swore and anger welled up inside me. I asked him to let me do this my way, but I couldn’t. Defeated, I walked across the street to a machine shop where some workmen were welding farm machinery. They were happy to help. I was not equally happy to have them help. I was embarrassed. I was angry.
In the days that followed there were no bedside chats. There was no Victor Hugo. There was only pushing pills and pulling soiled sheets. My mother did not have the temperament for death. I’m sure that hospice existed in 1988, but it was never offered as a possibility. My moments in the grief cycle that year were mostly anger.
So now I begin my Origami Hospice. Each day I am given a fold to make. Some are easy, “Fold the paper in half.” Other folds are far more difficult. It is not easy to see how, in the end, any of this is going result in an artful crane.
There is a scene in the wonderfully odd and profound movie, American Splendor. It is the true story of a file clerk who leads a miserable and negative life. He takes solace in turning his wretched existence into a comic book. In a bizarre twist of events, he meets the girl who will later become his wife. Toward the end of the movie he utters a line I will never forget.
His wife grows impatient with his negative tirade. She holds up one of his comic books and offers, “But see how insightful these have made you.”
He replies, “I would trade ten years of insight for ten minutes of happiness.”
His one major oversight was that, “Happiness does not exist.” Let me rephrase, “Happiness does not exist as a goal, only as a journey.” I fold the paper, not to make a crane, but to fold the paper and take joy that a crane emerges.