Saturday, February 25, 2017

Love Affairs ( some Godly ) Between These People and Their Dogs ( part one of two parts )

By Robert R. Schwarz

                              Be comforted , little dog, thou too in the Resurrection shall
                             have a tail of gold.  ( Martin Luther )

                              Our German forefathers had a very kind religion. They believed
                             that, after death, they would meet again all the good  dogs that
                            had been their companions in life. I wish I could believe that too.
                           (Otto von Bismarck,Prussian statesman )


1.      Kathy and Her Hospital Therapy Dogs
              
Kathy and Guinness, life-long friends
  Retired school teacher Kathy King has 70 dogs , including a Great Dane .  You can see four of them go in and out of patient rooms seven days a week at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, Illinois. There , Kathy manages the animal assisted therapy program . She is quick to tell you that she gets as many smiles from the patients  as from her  students who have behavioral disorders.   "The smiles you get from both  the hospital staff and  patients when you walk into their room is a moment of joy and light, " she says .
            Patient blood pressure and stress are lowered when   the dog ( usually a mixed breed ) comes in, she explains.  " The patients  are very smoothed by petting the  dog  and  more apt then to do what the nurse wants them to do.  "  When children are getting immunized,  " some don't even know they are getting a shot. "  One patient  didn't want her hair brushed but did brush  the dog .  Another cooed  to  the  dog at  bedside, " You love me ? You want to stay with me?"  Dogs weighing less than 50 pounds are allowed to lay on the patient's bed, which has been covered with a separate sheet. If more than  50 pounds, the dog may sit on a chair. Kathy carries a list of those patients  who have indicated their desire to see  a therapy dog.
               As Kathy and I  made rounds  with her own therapy dog, " Guinness" , a Brindle hound mix,  several staff members upon seeing the leashed canine,  paused their work  to express  affection like, "Oh, what a lovable puppy ! "  . ( Guinness is obviously no puppy. )  Another staff  member coaxed  Guinness into  her office and fed him a biscuit
           
One of the volunteer teams and their therapy dogs.  (kneeling )
Dennis Socha and "Flounder;" ; (back,  from left ) Denise
Powers and "Axle", Kathy King, program manager, and
"Guinness"; Dawn  Thompson and " Kirby"   
Like all therapy dogs at this hospital, Guinness  received two sessions of  training ( in the hospital's basement ) and a behavioral  screening . Of the 35 dogs which their volunteer masters registered  for the last training session,  only 12 were accepted.  Dogs must refrain from walking ahead of  their master, obey the commands of "sit" and "down" , be "social" with other dogs, naturally want to approach patients, and   remain quiet in the patient's room (  the dog can bark if someone knocks on  the door but , Kathy says, "must soon stop" ) .
            Kathy started as a volunteer here nine years ago and has managed this program for five years. Asked what her work has meant to her ,  she says,  " It reinforces my belief in doing something extra  for others. I've always thought if  you have   the available time,  give some of it to  others. "    
     

2.  Barbara and Her Tragedy-Filled 'God ' Moments with  Hannah

[ The following account was written by Ms.  Barbara Granado, 68, a retired  insurance company founder and  volunteer for the past seven years for  the Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dog Ministry . She is a member of St. Peter Luther Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. ]

             My journey began in October , 2010 when I became the handler-trainer for a Golden retriever named Hannah. She was 10 months old and had just finished her obedience training at Dwight Women's Prison ( now closed ) in Illinois. My job was to socialize and teach her proper behavior when squirrels crossed her path or noisy trucks whizzed by or little kids wanted to climb all over her. However, it wasn’t until we were all called to Newtown, Connecticut to offer comfort to families and children in the schools and first responders [ to the shooting ] that Hannah and I learned how God was to use us.
Barbara and" Hannah" ..." a
bridge to love "
 
            With my friend Sharon and Maggie , her Comfort Dog in training , Hannah and I climbed into my car and began the long trip to Sandy Hook. [ Note: A crazed 20-year-old adult on Dec. 14, 2012, entered the  elementary school here  and shot and killed 20 students and 6 adults. ] Quite honestly, I was very worried about how I would be able to hold up working with folks and an entire community who had suffered such an agonizing tragedy. I carry my emotions on my shirt sleeves. I was afraid I would cry and be more a burden than help. We met with teachers and families of children in the school at the time of the shooting and with  police and firemen who carried out the  slaughtered 6-year-olds.
            We listened. We silently prayed , and when asked,  openly prayed as we watched  children and adults alike got down with our dogs and sobbed ; we hugged and stroked our dogs and whispered in their ears. For some children, these words whispered to the dogs ears were the first they had spoken in four days. We watched the healing begin .
               When we returned to the hotel , Sharon and I sobbed. ( I am teary eyed as I type this. ) It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Those thankful smiles and long hugs were gifts from God . We gave and received His love that week.  And you  know what? I didn’t breakdown as I feared I would.  I learned a valuable lesson that week:  Don’t be afraid when God calls . He gave us the courage and strength to do what he sent us out there to do. Just be a presence of love. The dogs were bridges to the love, compassion, and mercy only Christ can give.
Members and dogs of the Lutheran Church Charities Comfort Dog Ministry
   pose outside a Mt. Prospect Illinois church  prior to a  funeral  for three
family members killed in a tragic car accident . Barbara and "Hannah" are
on the far right.     
            Tears well up  every time I think of those awesome “God Moments” I have had with the Comfort Dog Ministry. Since Sandy Hook,  we have traveled to those impacted by Super Storm Sandy,  the  Boston Marathon bombing, the  shooting at Umqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, the Pulse night club  shooting in Orlando,  various  tornadoes and floods, and  the funerals for those taken home at young ages .
            My life is forever changed. My faith is  stronger knowing God uses us in many,  many ways-- often in the most unexpected ways. Every time I see the smiles these dogs bring,  I feel God’s endless love.  [A few days after writing this, Barbara and Hannah went to a funeral of a wife , husband and their 20-year-old daughter who were tragically killed Feb. 16 when their car was hit in nearby Des Plaines by a recklessly speeding motorist.  ]


3.  His Mourning Over Wife's Death  Eased by a  Rescue Dog

[ Names have been changed, by request]
             
  Fred 's wife of several decades died  recently in a sudden, tragic accident . Deep in mourning, he went to a therapist for relief and was advised to get a dog for companionship. Fred did. When he Fred went to  a canine  rescue shelter,   an 18-month -old dog weighing  a few ounces  over 12 pounds was let out of her cage and , Fred told me, ran straight  to him.  
            Nowadays, " Toodles "  jumps onto Fred's lap and cuddles with her master. When the  dog stretches out her front legs,   " she looks like she's praying, " Fred  says.  Toodles doesn't like being left alone when Fred goes shopping or to church.  e loves  He loves to take her daily for a half-mile walk.  "She's been a big help with companionship. " 

4.  The Unconditional Love of Dogs

[ The following  are excerpts , used with permission, are
from the internet blog " Finding Your Soul" by  David Anderson. ]

               On the Monday following the terrorist rampage in Orlando, a dozen Golden retrievers showed up in the Disney city. They were part of the K-9 Comfort Dogs team, a ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities. The dogs had come to give the kind of love and comfort that come only from a furry friend. There was a time when bringing in dogs to care for the emotional needs of the traumatized would have seemed odd. But now it’s common. K-9 Comfort Dogs came to the emotional rescue after the Boston Marathon bombing, after the Sandy Hook shootings. “We’ve had a lot of people here that start petting the dog, and they break out crying,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity. “Dogs show unconditional love.”
               " Unconditional love " is   a near-clichĂ© . People use those word as if it  happens naturally….In actual practice that kind of love comes easily for God and Golden retrievers, and very grudgingly for human beings. Our love comes with a lot of conditions, a lot of strings. It doesn't mean we're bad people, it just means we're human….Yet  the one thing every soul seeks is simply  unconditional love, where there is nothing to be earned [from it ]. So when I read stories about Golden retrievers being flown in to offer  love [without strings attached ] to grieving humans, I can’t tell whether that’s a beautiful thing ( i.e. , that we’ve finally understood the emotional and spiritual capacity of our pets) or whether we have outsourced our love needs to animals because we can’t find a way to do it ourselves.….Selfless love--agape, Jesus called it--doesn't come naturally. It takes work , practice….The only beings who naturally offer unconditional love are either God or dog. If you're a human being, the only way to get there is through a lot of inner work—and a flood of grace. 


                          When I had to put down my dog, I couldn't
                         stop bawling. I believe dogs  go to heaven .
                        ( Tom Stengren , a realtor and  friend of mine )  


5.  A Priest Who Kept a Tibetan Terrier in His Office  as an 'Ice Breaker '

            Retired church pastor Fr. Bill Zavaski named his dog "Merton" after the celebrated  monk and author Thomas Merton . Bill took the naming quite seriously. "It's like naming a child , " he said over the telephone.
Fr. Bill Zavaski  blessing one of the many dogs  brought to
him at his church's animal blessing day . Dogs "are
eager to love," he believes.                      
  
  
               Three years ago , if you were a visitor to the priest's parish office in Arlington Heights, you would either see Merton nestled someplace on the floor or schlepping  in  the hallway as if the building were his kennel kingdom. In Bill's office,  Merton would remind  the priest  that his dog's ancestors  were once used to  guard the Dali Lama. But Merton's real value to Bill—and why Bill loved him—was two-fold ; in  the office Merton's presence would put at ease the visitor who entered with delicate matters  on his or her  mind.  He was an "ice-breaker,"  Bill said, and then added how walking Merton three times daily gave him extra time to think and                                                                                                     pray over spiritual issues.
            "He was a great companion, " Bill said. " One grows very affectionate for a dog. "  When Bill went on  a mission to India a year ago, Merton  contacted some "form of rare illness" and died before his master's return.   Bill eulogized Merton with a quote from Fr. Richard Rohr, a globally recognized author and ecumenical teacher  who believed that dogs have  souls: Merton  was eager to love. 


6. ' Midnight' Brings Light and Peace to the Kids She Teaches

             An eight-year-old  greyhound with a mix of Labrador retriever  has been  an indispensable teaching aid to Laurie Stutzman,  a retired juvenile probation  officer who now is a "life coach"  who,  says she ,  imparts the importance of "mind, spirit, and body" to students from pre-school to high school.  Midnight, she says with pride,  "gives them a sense of peace and clam.   The kids sense her love."           
Laurie and "Midnight" , who "brings peace to kids "
 
            Laurie, 56,   a Lake Zurich, Illinois resident,  today  uses her teaching  skills  and the discipline she has taught  Midnight to  help students in suburban Chicago who are challenged  with autism, anxiety, and Down syndrome.  These are skills  she acquired after  working professionally for  30 years in  helping kids who had weathered both drug addiction and court appearances. For the past seven years,   Laurie has worked with incarcerated , drug-addicted youths as in-patients and out-patients .  " Midnight imparts to them a sense of living in the present, " she says.  Laurie  is a court-certified family therapist with a master's degree in guidance and counseling.
            "I love doing my work," she says. "Midnight helps bring peace to  the kids . They feel good when they pet her. "  Her printed flyer states: Healing starts today.    


7.  This Lutheran Pastor Shepherds His Flock  with German Shepherds

( Note: The following was written, at my request,
 by the Rev. Hicham  Chehab, an ordained
Lutheran Minister who converted to Christianity
after  fighting alongside the Lebanese militia
several years ago. Today he pastors the Salam
Christian  Fellowship in Lombard, Illinois.  )

                                             'A Dog's Love Is Like God's Love'
             Three winters ago, I received a call from a German Shepherd breeder in McHenry, Illinois, whom I met at a church. He said that he had a 10- year- old dog, and he had no place for him. He also had a frost bite on his right hind leg and tail.  I thought:  If I do not take him, he would spend that winter outside, in the snow. At the age of 10, he may not survive.
The Rev.  Hicham  Chehab with "Sammie"
 
            That dog was Utah, a 110- pound,  pitch black German Shepherd, and the great grandfather of Sammie , one of the other two shepherds I had.
            One of the parishioners in McHenry who knew Utah,  told me that Utah was a “gentle giant,” and said that I would not regret taking him in. It was true. Immediately, Utah got along with Winnie and Sammie.
            We have a fenced backyard, so it was not difficult to give Utah some room to walk around off leash. But he would walk around, but always come back and look me in the eye.
             Utah loved riding in vehicles, especially my motor home. I took him camping twice. The pack and I walked in the woods, and had a dip in the river. Driving back from the camping ground in Yorkville, Illinois, Utah did something surprising. He jumped into the front seat and rode "shotgun"—as Wild West stagecoach drivers would say—keeping a sleepy eye on me while I drove.
             After two weeks, I was sitting on my couch in the basement when I heard loud shuffling steps coming down the basement stairwell. It was Utah tumbling down like a bear. He came into the basement, and jumped on my lap.
            Since that time, until his death, Utah and I bonded together. As we walked in parks and campgrounds, Utah would always stay at a short distance and keep his eyes on me,  even when the other two dogs drifted away.  Everyone who observed Utah’s behavior told me: “Boy, this dog loves you! ”
            Once, in a Bible study , I gave this as an example for waiting on the Lord. I believe that a disciple of Jesus should wait on his Lord and Savior like a dog waits on his master . I also  believe that  a dog’s love is like God’s love. It is an unconditional love.  A dog’s affection is without any limitations and without conditions. A dog’s love is truly altruistic. It is a complete love which has no bounds and is unchanging, like God’s love.  Dog’s love is like that love among family members, and comrades in arms fighting in the same battlefield. A dog’s love is like a parent's love for their child; no matter what the child does, the amount of love that remains among the family members is unchanging and unconditional. Unconditional love is only possible because God loved us first.           
At the Illinois  Fox River with his canine flock of three : Winnie shown
behind the pastor, Utah exiting out of the river, and Sammie out swimming.   
  

Unconditional love between man and dog is affection and friendship.  Dogs may be the only animals that display unconditional love. In this sense, they have a sliver of God’s image in them.
            My  three dogs (now two dogs) have been  for three years my coast- to- coast travel companions as I drive to different churches throughout the United States to preach the Gospel and talk about God’s Grace in my life. Walking with them in uncharted wooded territories  during my travels, sharpens my mind and soul. Even when I go to seminary for my Ph.D courses, the dogs  camp with me on campus. As soon as I finish my class in the late afternoon, I  take them for a walk along the Fort Wayne River in  Indiana. It's a walk that refreshes my mind and my soul.
            Nobody but the dogs would camp with me in the snow. They would be so excited that their hysterical excitement would warm up the sub-zero weather for me.
            A dog’s unconditional love provides me with a glimpse of true humanity , which cannot exist without loving others as yourself. That bond between man and dog seems to derive from our  Creator who connects us all. Whether you are a creationist or an evolutionist, you would have to acknowledge this connection between Man and dog that developed through thousands of years of symbiosis. 


8.  Dogs Who Trained Me ( a few closing comments from Bob Schwarz )

          I've had  "best friends" throughout most of my eight-decade life span. They and other dogs I have known have taught me how  to be  more  alive within  the spiritual dimension of my life . ( I deeply appreciate those individuals who have kindly and so thoughtfully  made possible this report about love affairs with our dogs.
Bob Schwarz with his " trainers" Curry ( left) and Moses.
    
            My "first affair " was with Rusty, the American water spaniel who my parents unloaded early one  morning from a railroad express crate and carried him into my brother's and my bedroom where the puppy, with a  vigorously wagging tail,  brought us from sleep into an outpouring of  joy.  Later,   into young  married life came Moses and, afterwards, Luther,  two German  shepherds.  Moses became our night guard in our Hell's Kitchen  ( New York City ) apartment,  and Luther, years later, became my roughhousing buddy in suburbia. And then Bonnie, my parents'  Airedale  whom I got to know quite well when she defended  us from a deadly copperhead snake . Lastly was Currie, a Wheaton Terrier , cranky  but no less lovable than  the others.
            Another word is needed for Bonnie….My parents had her as a gentle house  pet  on their  small "ranch" in a remote part of western Arkansas where  I went for some R&R during my  Army days  as a draftee.  One morning while in the backyard with Mom and Dad ,  I noticed  a  copperhead snake slithering towards  a nearby bush. Seeing no weapon about me, I dashed  to the  porch door , opened it and shouted, " Bonnie ! "   Reacting instinctively to  danger sounded by my voice, she ran out and immediately spotted the snake, a creature she had never encountered  before .
           
Rusty, Bob's first 'love affair. '
The copperhead was about to disappear into the bush when Bonnie charged at it.  She seized it a few inches below its head , shook  it violently three or four times, then  toss it dead to the ground .  Our dog never for a second paused defensively…Adam and Eve should have had a Bonnie .
            Dogs: No moods ( except for Curry ) . No  attitudes. No days-off.  They  taught (trained?) me to be much more  obedient to the  Master of the Universe,  to try harder to trust Him in all dangers, and to be more willing  to show  affection and  loyalty  to my loved ones. 
            I hope you'll   will  read  the final part of this report ; it's about a deaf-blind man who graduated (!)  from college , married a deaf woman and became a father, and went on to own his own company—all with  the help his Leader dog ,  Dinah.  ( I observed the training of this man and his dog , and their final exam was quite dramatic. )

[ This ends part one . Part two
will be posted March 12  ]

All comments are welcome.

© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Prodigal Father Who Beat the Devil at the 11th Hour [Part two of two parts ]

By Robert R. Schwarz


        V       The family is the privileged setting where every person
                        learns to give and receive love….Nothing can completely
                        take its place …. The family is also a school that enables
                 men and women  to grow to the full measure of their
                         humanity .  ( Pope Benedict XVI )

         Judith and I  had no contact with  our Hell's Kitchen friend for seven years . Why, I don't know;  perhaps we had considered our two years on Ninth Avenue as just a fading,   bitter-sweet dream.  By circa 1970 ,  we  had replanted our  suburban roots outside Chicago ;  Judith resumed a full-time career teaching art and exhibiting hand-glazed pottery  and Impressionistic oil paintings,  and I, two years later, was made executive editor of a chain of weekly newspapers .  We had  become middle-class suburbanites  who , during our first year back , occasionally  boasted to friends  about our "survival"   in Hell's Kitchen.”  

  
Ninth Avenue,  Sam's turf in Hell's Kitchen
      One day we got a voice mail  from a woman—Doris was her name—who told us she and Sam had married and become parents of three children . The message said she and the kids were now living alone in Chicago ; she had left Sam in New York. I immediately called her and, after a long conversation,  learned that Sam had taken a job managing a porno movie house in  Times Square and, for the first time,  was legitimately making a lot of money and behaving  like a King Tut among a ragamuffin staff of  four men  and two women . It was depressing news.
       Her mention of Times Square triggered the scene of Judith and I first arriving in the City and soon tramping to  the Square to gaze  upon  its bright  adornment of billboards and theater marquees.  At a hotdog stand I struck up a conversation with an elderly lady carrying two shopping  bags. She told us that Times Squarethese  seven square blocks in central  Manhattan no linger was the   classy , world renown  tourist attraction  as before the Great  Depression.  Enjoying the history lesson she was giving us, she said Times Square  now  was a glut of porn shops and peep shows infested with petty  thieves and drug dealers and their customers. Tourists were avoiding it , she said , looking curiously at us.  
        Doris continued on the telephone and then , breathing out  deep sadness, said: "Sam loves it, Bob. "
        I easily imaged my old friend taking a few minutes each night to step outside his theater kingdom , giving a lordly smile to the mostly youthful audience buying tickets,  then having the surrounding lights of Broadway and Seventh Avenue  twinkle his eyes . It had to be Sam's highest high, a trip often  enhanced by a  prudent snort of cocaine.   I say prudent because I had always perceived   Sam as man who  tried very hard to keep a tight rein on any passion which he thought threatened  his freedom to enjoy life as he pleased . To him, .addiction was tragic , but above all , stupid. To surrender to anything was not Sam.
***
      So, two days later we are sitting  in Doris' apartment living room  in a depressed neighborhood of Chicago's  South Side and  waiting anxiously for Sam to arrive while his wife  brings us up to date on her family . Judith and I remain  confounded by what we have so far  heard. What will Sam have to say ?  Marriage? Chicago ? Three children ?         
            "Sam  will be so happy to see you," Doris ,  says.  "I couldn't say everything over the phone when I called because the children were here. But I will now while they are  in the kitchen playing some game .   You'll meet them later. "
      Doris talks , and I steal a look at  the unmatched furniture surrounding us and a  ceiling incapable of any more aging, and I am hoping that Judith and I can  still relate to Sam as a friend and  he likewise to us.  I also take note of Doris, a tallish, large-framed woman likely  in her fifties ; when she rises to pass a plate of mixed nuts,  Judith notices she does so with a model's grace. Doris is willing to be vulnerable with  her emotions and , after several minutes of conversation,  she has impressed us  as a humble  woman with much motherly  fortitude.  
      She exits to the kitchen to fetch some sweets for the kids and tells them to be patient.
        "I had to leave Sam ," she says . " He  was being abusive to all of us in New York, especially when he took drugs."   She explains that  a year ago she decided to take another chance with Sam after he  wrote her that he was off cocaine  and missed the kids and was sorry for his past  behavior, especially his   ogre-like shouting fits that had for years  rattled his family's bones. 
     Doris calls in the children and introduces  us to Charles , 15 , Matthew , 7 , and  Gloria, 12 ,  who had became our godchild without our knowledge—another  typical Sam breech of protocol.  All three  display  their father's inheritance by giving Judith and me bear hugs and excitedly asking  questions . Within an hour, we  all  are snug in  companionship.  
      I am uncomfortably anxious to  find out  what earthquake it took to move our  Shrek buddy out  of his  Pleasure Island at Times Square and to leave his Gehenna   ( a hellish Old Testament name for a dumping place for unclean  matter  continuously  in fire ) . I can't believe he voluntary left his heaven on earth  to  return to traditional family responsibilities and neighborhood life . He likely thought that coping again with prison life would be less punishing than living in an alien environment . I once heard him make  fun of  "the reality of a 40-hour job and  fatherhood. " Had  Sam returned to something so lucratively  illicit—and secret, of course— that it compensated for him for this most painful sacrifice ?   
           I tell Doris  not to get up as I head for the kitchen for a drink of water. Crossing  the living room's slightly sagging hardwood floor spotted with  remnants of old varnish, I enter a  kitchen with cracked linoleum spread over its floor and a sink is full of mismatched dishes . Water  is dripping defiantly from the sink faucet ; I  can't help feeling  smug   about that my wife and I have  a return ticket to our  suburban  comforts.    
     Doris  spends  the next fifteen minutes relating how Sam  suddenly appeared one morning on her doorstep  with Type One diabetes and  grossly overweight  . She says she and the kids two weeks later  did a jig in bare feet on the kitchen floor when Sam announced he had began hard  labor as a school janitor , mopping up classroom floors and cleaning toilets.  Doris is joyful as she tells us this , but Judith and I sense something in her is smoldering and  begs to be tamped down.            
        At last we hear Sam opening  the front door.   Judith and I  go to him and exchange long  lingering  hugs reminiscent of that day we parted company at curbside in Hell's Kitchen . A moment of nostalgia flashes me back to that first Goodies and Badies party in Sam's  New York pad. As  I look at him, he's more Shrek  than ever, still a  giant with a big, un-corralled heart and a belly full of  laughs.
         I joke about his streaks of white hair. "What  do you expect for a guy 59," he says and  trucks abruptly to an armchair and crashes down on it , all 300 now- plus pounds of him. I  noticed  he limps. I see  a man living  an epilogue of a riotous life,  a trench-fatigued soldier kept alive perhaps  only by unrestricted passion.

          
10th Avenue, also Sam's  turf
  Charles leaps unto his father's lap , onto  heavily stained  coveralls . Sam, his  face rough with at least two days of whiskers and  spotted by the grime of his occupation, plants a smacking wet kiss  on both of his son's  cheeks.  We wait while Sam tries to forget his workday and reconnect to his family. He  sweeps  a  big , calloused hand up and down Charles' face. Judith  in that moment (she later told me )  sees  bone-deep weariness and a hint of sadness etched on Sam's face .  
            Doris  brings in glasses of water.  I try for rapport with Sam   and say the wrong thing:  "How'd it go today, big guy?" 
            Sam frowns and retorts bitterly:  "Cleaned all  the  crap  bowls. You wanna know more! " 
            Doris  adds balm to the scene by calling  to the children   " show Aunt Judith and Uncle Robert how well you play your instruments."
            Gloria , blonde and cute, holds  a banjo impetuously  as do Matthew  with his flute and Charles with an  oboe more than half  his height. . They play  a piece from Mozart. Doris  and Sam beam.  Judith and I love all of it and surmise that  no little sacrifice was made for the children's instruments and music lessons. Charles hits a sour note. Sam shouts with  disappointment:  "Mother of Pearl!”  The  outburst freezes Charles' face for a moment. It's a reminder how  his father was in New York.
The music stops and Sam once again   makes us laugh and   our brains dance  when, using   his pallet of  assorted  psychological insights and  metaphors colored with vulgarities,  he describes the silliness of people he daily encounters on public buses he takes  to work. He laughs   from the depths of his now Buddha-sized  belly,  considerably expanded since I last saw him.  At last we are talking without any sense  of  socio-economic   boundaries.  
Doris  brings out a two-pound box of Fannie May second- day candy . "None for you, husband  Flannery, " she politely tells him." And you know why."  Sam grabs  four pieces . Doris  tells us how much the family loves  fresh  asparagus and strawberries . " We eat them   all the time. "
“Yes, we love them , too, " replies Judith.   "But I won't pay their prices out-of-season, " she adds as a helpful suggestion for Doris ' budget management .
Finally,  I ask the big question: "Sam, I want to hear why you really  left New York." 
            Sam frowns, and I  recall that Sam use to frown  like this  when he knew he must now  be as honest as  possible.  Doris  tells the children to go  play in their bedroom.
            Just before Sam begins, he rubs an  index finger under his eye, and  I remember this behavior from our old days on Ninth Avenue , that whenever Sam thought  his  listening audience might   suspect  him of fabricating a tale, he would do this.  "I had a dream one night in my Times Square pad," he says , sounding  like   he's about to   give sworn testimony in  court.  "I was hanging nude, upside down from a hook in a slaughter house and someone was flaying me.    The next day—and I swear to sweet Mary (he was raised  Catholic,  sort of)   this is the truth—my apartment building burned down."  He pauses  and roars  with laughter salted with his usual  imaginative  obscenities — intended, of course, to jar  Judith and me.  "You should have seen the rats run out of it —thousands of them!"  He roars again and  grins from ear to ear .  I would not  forget that  grin  and  later interpret it  as Sam's  acquiescence to an enemy he yet to confront.  And  I would always think of Sam's  dream as a preternatural  view of Purgatory dredged up from the swampy part of his brain . Though Sam would never see it that way , I am sure it played a  major role in his exodus from Time Square .
The late Century mystical theologian John Tauler, told it this way:
When the evil spirit  comes roaring upon poor , weak men , they instantly fall down helpless, and  he comes and tears them to pieces….So must each one of us carefully mark the weakest side of his character, for there without doubt the evil one will deliver his fiercest  attack—that is to say, where he finds the greatest tendency to vice. Sometimes the devil's readiest temptation is to [ encourage ] despondency . He shows a man his native frailty and his sinfulness, and he tries to make him heavy-hearted on that account. And then he  roars in his ear: 'Are you so foolish as to spend your life on anguish and in penance ? No ! No ! Live in joy. Enjoy your carnal pleasures. Almighty God will give you time for penance at the end of life. Have your own  will, enjoy creatures while you are young and strong; when old age comes ,  then shall you become pious and serve God. '
     Judith did most  of the talking driving home. " God bless his family ," she said . "No better place to give and get love. No better place to become fully human. I hope he sees it as a life-long treasure. "
" I don't know if he's able to see it that way, " I said.  

Times Square, Sam had his movie house kingdom here 
"He's been on a long, long, journey,  Judith said . "I almost cried when he told us about cleaning those toilets . "  My wife was known by her family and friends to be a woman of enormous common sense and empathy, two attributes that made up for what often was missing in her husband.
We were silent for the rest of the drive .That night in bed , Judith said, " About cleaning those toilets… a wise uncle of mine once told me that God calls every single one of us to be a saint. No matter what our role in life ."                       
Judith went to sleep ,  I couldn't. ;  her  comment made me think of several friends  who had visited my hospitalized brother during his agonizing last  year . I got to know them quite well.   Sometimes I saw my friends'  constant humble natures as so much weakness  which I ,  in moments, inexplicably despised  . Yet now and this "weakness" touched with a  kind of character integrity I seldom saw in other people. Most of all, I had moments when saw their "weakness"  as a strength  I actually envied .
There was Bruce, a  simple- living bachelor who had survived two heart attacks and  four decades of   barely made a living selling shoes and  who never felt comfortable in a church because it made him mourn  for dead friends .  And Tom, a senior with a disabled arm who worked evenings as a cafĂ©  busboy to pay for  meds for his ailing wife . And Torki, an Iranian immigrant with a fourth grade education who cleaned  up garbage 20 hours each week at a fast food place   to pay rent and food bills for he and his wife with a respiratory disability ; Torki    attended  a church to learn English to pass a citizenship exam  (which he did ).  And Rob, living out his adult life  in a special home for  eight men who, like him, have ever-lasting  mental and physical  health disabilities; Rob prays nightly in a small room  he shares with a resident.    Spencer is  my  widowed  nephew   working two minimum-pay jobs  and  giving moral support 24-7 to his  live-in , unemployed son .
These men, I know for a fact,  have  widely different backgrounds and  character  profiles; I also believe they are living out their virtues as capacitated   by God.  They are, naturally,  flawed humans who bitterly regret whenever they violated  their moral  code.   Sometimes they are beaten to the ground  with failure or guilt. But what makes them wonderfully different  is that they keep getting up and trekking ahead , never really certain where their  trail is  taking them. him. Though I'm not sure of this, I am willing to believe that , unlike me, each  of my friends is doing  his  humble best to love God in Heaven and his "brothers" and " sisters" on earth.  They're not looking for paybacks or heeding the wounds.
The next morning at breakfast,  Judith's first words were, "  Sam is  still fighting to win,  isn't he , Robert ?"
I shrugged my shoulders.   
VI           When a soldier in a battle is wounded or has to
                        give ground a little, no one is so demanding or
                        so ignorant of military matters as to think that
                        this is a crime. Only those who do not fight             
                        are never wounded; those who charge  the
                        enemy with the greatest spirit are the ones
                        who receive the most blows.  ( St. John
                        Chrysostom,  Archbishop of Constantinople
                        349 – 407 A.D. )
 During the next six months, we continued  to visit  the Flannery family, inviting them to our home for sumptuous meals    served on a table  decorated with fresh cut flowers and   napkins Judith had stitched.  Sam  swooned. Doris and Sam appreciated these get-togethers  as a   badly needed reprieve from the daily stress  they faced.
As one crisis in the Flannery family was  resolved, another popped up.  Judith and I were sure this could be avoided if only Doris and Sam used more foresight.  But then we saw that dealing with this constant stress  left then little energy  to think proactively .
The stress intensified  when   Gloria, not yet out of high school ,  told her parents she was in love with  a neighborhood teen who was a gang member ; she had declared defiantly, " My body now  belongs to him. "  Then Sam observed  that   Charles  was hanging out with "bad dudes" ;  well he knew what could be the consequences.  There was always a threat of a utility being turned off because of unpaid bills. Doris was unemployed,  and with Sam's meager salary, she was often worried   about the food budget going bust, making her husband again delay a purchase of his  insulin .  Also, Sam's left  eye lost   much  of its  vision when pierced by a  nail he was yanking  out from a classroom ceiling. Family medical insurance was a " luxury   always around the corner  drug store, " Doris would say. Her husband's salary was fifty dollars too high for public aid…It surprised me that Sam did not return to drugs to  seek relief from all this. He did, however, stop at a corner bar on the way home from work for  a  single  shot of rye  and a beer chaser..  
***
Hell's Kitchen  of  yesteryear  
On a Saturday afternoon when I knew Sam would be alone, I drove to his apartment and invited him  for  a walk around the block.  I had no agenda,  I just wanted to be with him .  
"No walk  today, Robert," he said, in a weary voice. "Gotta save fuel for Monday." 
I teased him about the walk until , like a  big brother ,  he grabbed  the nape of my neck and  steered me down the stairs. 
We walked for perhaps 30 minutes without more than a phrase or two between us.  Sam kept his head low and shuffled his steps .  My mind wandered back to those ten days  in that maximum security penitentiary  in Bratislava and the small nail I had retrieved from under my straw mattress . On the brink of despair and looking up at a blue sky through my barred widow , I had  asked myself: Would this nail  be sharp enough to give me  freedom—a final freedom?    I fell to my knees and, for the  first time in my life,  cried   out to God with a  full heart . I  promised God I would faithfully keep all of ias Hi   His Commandments for the rest of my life.
A bolt  of truth hit me in that cell.  I did not recognize it then as God's mercy. Though I knew so I thought that my  life  depended  on keeping this promise,  I also knew with shocking  certainty  that I was incapable of keeping it. My child-like sense of omnipotence ,  my embrace of being my own moral authority, my comforting habit of saying to people whatever would excuse me from being wrong—all this was ripped from me after being masked all my life.  I froze.  I wept. At age 25,  I had  finally  learned what integrity means.  It was my exodus from damning bondage.  
To live now in accord with this life-changing epiphany would  demand quite  a long trek. And as I through the years journeyed  towards my River Jordan,  life would never be dull;  not so,  with that beast of an enemy always  behind me…(That's another report . )
…Was my friend Sam now on his brink of despair ?   
Suddenly, without thinking,  I stopped walking and turned to my friend. " Sam, I want to ask you something. "
        He stopped and stared at me ; his Hell's Kitchen  street instincts were warning  him of a confrontation.  ( Here, I have to admit that when Judith and I and Sam were taking evening strolls down Ninth Avenue, I developed a fondness for that same stare . Sam would flash it at a creep approaching us , and I really liked the idea of having a friend who could  "take down"—as we said in my high school days—any man on the street. )
 I blurted out a question I had never asked anyone—let alone a man like Sam— and  had no idea where I was going with it. "Look, Sam, would you mind if we prayed together?" 
 Waiting for Sam's reply, I recalled how Sam's religious sentiments had been expressed with mocking humor ; the memory of it worried me . Sam had seen enough of my dark side in Hell's Kitchen never to see me as any kind of an evangelist . I wasn't one .
He, however, stayed cool and simply  nodded his consent.  Nothing more was said. We turned back to Sam's apartment , and I became  aware of how critical was this upcoming event . Still in mutual silence, we went to a darkened room.   
***
            In the meditation of  theologian Tauler ,  he makes a final reference to one of the devil's strategies: it's  to rub sore our  wounds of despair or despondency.  Tauler  warns against the devil's "treacherous counsel " that we should enjoy  life by self-rule:       
            Ah, dear children, what is this [ lie ] . Be on your guard. Diligently watch while it is day, for soon eternal darkness will enshroud you. Regulate your life by no such false confidence, but rather by a wise understanding of what is a really God-guided life. And let there be no turning back. See to it that God alone shall rule you.  
        I knelt down , then did Sam . I   silently  asked God for a good prayer, then whispered to Sam to  open his heart to Jesus  and  " just talk to Him—about anything …silently if you want."   Sam  remained in a silence I considered sacred to  us. I begged God for His love and mercy for Sam and his family.  At stake for Sam , I believed, was  an eternity in   heaven or  hell.  
For a long moment we remained   motionless.  In the dark silence, I am certain that  a violent, winner-take-all  war was being waged in and around Sam.  From the blessing of the  sacrificial love of  my parents  and from my  profligate youth , I had learned that Sam's war was every individual's war . It is the ongoing combat which, theologians from all denominations  will tell you, is against temptations of our human nature , toxic allures of our surrounding  culture, and subtle lies of the devilcall him or it what you may. These three "powers ", assert  the theologians  and religious scholars ,  have been mankind's chief villains  since The Beginning ; they give neither quarter nor ever come close to an armistice.
Sam , I sensed, was now facing his  penultimate crisis. I knew he was now writhing in a bipolar arena , a spiritual tug-of-war . He wanted to win ,didn't he ?  Of course !  But did he know how to fight , what weapon to use? Had ever taught him about the power of faith , of a loving, all-powerful God? If Sam , now on his knees and sweating thoughts of doubt and guilt for a heavy baggage of wicked behavior which he  had never once tried to unpack ,  did he know about  that Good Thief on the Cross who went to paradise the same day he pleaded his case to the Man on the cross next to him ? Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Yet , I  don't think Sam had ever memorized a Christian prayer by heart , and I felt , that  him to win this war now being fought beyond  this room's dimensions,  I felt he had  to surrender himself,   to let go and let God . If a good  warrior's cry was trying to sound  in his heart,  I prayed  he would not scoff at it ! I prayed  God would give  him the courage to die to himself.  Sam could say  no , but  the yes had to be put  in his heart by God !
***
We stayed kneeling  and praying silently for several minutes , then we hugged and without a whisper, parted.  For three months Sam and I did not exchange a word about that afternoon. Three months later, Sam ate a pound of candy  after dinner , went to bed . He never woke up. I would have no reason to ever  doubt  he had said no to himself nor that  God refused him a yes.    
***
VII       Judith had a single red  Irish rose delivered to the funeral . When I went to the casket and saw my friend  lying in an ill-fitted suit and drab tie,  hands clasped around the rose, I wept. An appropriate eulogy never came to my mind nor was any spoken in the church. Neither was there an obituary in the newspapers,  nor likely would there ever be  one  published for the likes of Sam. (It's one reason why  I'm writing this more than forty years later. )  Perhaps the most fitting words for Sam were  written 2,000 years ago by a man who had described himself as the "chief of sinners" and who ,  despite "thorns " in his flesh ,   displayed profound  strength and courage .  In his Biblical epistle "Romans, "   the apostle  Paul affirmed with these words what would later  turn  ancient  world thinking   upside down: For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want….Miserable one that I am ! Who will deliver me ….?  Thanks be to God…[it is  ]Jesus Christ our Lord. " 
Epilogue   I saw Doris  and the three children only twice after Sam died, and that was ten years later. I regret to say there never was a sustained effort for any reunion.   At this writing, I believe all were alive . Doris slipped into early dementia, Gloria married , then  was  divorced and  began operating a beauty salon, and Charles and Matthew went into  telemarketing .
  Sam  left me the legacy of an extra human dimension that  spurred me to small but significant achievements as a journalist  and , later, as  leadership development manager for the world's largest volunteer service organization, Lions Clubs International .  Because of  Sam's 11th  hour redemption, I came to believe, contrary to modern thought,  that  people can and do change. Though this is  not a revolutionary thought , it does provide hope for us "weak" people, particularly me.
THE END 
[ author's note: although some  of the
dialogue and scene description in
 this report has been slightly modified
to fill in minor gaps in the author's
memory, none of it alters  the truth
or fact portrayed here  by any
individual .  ]
All comments are welcome.

© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz