Friday, December 30, 2016

A Life of Love for a Man with Down Syndrome




By Robert R. Schwarz

But with this child sent from above
   Comes stronger faith and richer love
                                                               (from an anonymous poem  )

            The life of 54-year-old John Andrew Miller is best defined by love . It is the love of a family who said "no" to doctors who advised that John ,  when he was born ,  be institutionalized, and thus   depriving  John and his family of much of this love .

            John was born with Down syndrome. Scientists say this syndrome  is caused by being born with extra genetic material (chromosomes ) .   John's family and friends ,   however , say this was and has been a blessing of God's unfathomable grace . They will tell you of their unconditional love relationship with John ; and John himself , by his behavior and a face often wearing heart-felt smiles, easily adds testimony to this blessing  .

        
John Miller on the St. James altar during Mass
   On every other  Sunday  you see  John on the altar of the St. James Catholic church in Arlington Heights, Illinois . He is robed in white  and, during prayers, is  standing or sitting  next to his friend, Tom Stengren .   Tom  , 70 years of age,  is the senior vice president of a realtor firm and a former village trustee.  As a Mass coordinator,  he helps  John , who  can neither  read nor hear very well, participate in the Mass . Tom does this with an occasional  nudge and American Sign  language taught to him at a young age  by his mother. 

Tom's  friendship with John started just a few months ago  when, during the Mass procession, he saw John walking down the  aisle with the pastor , who earlier this year lost his brother  to Down syndrome.  " Seeing John with our pastor like that, really got to me, "  Tom  said. " When I first met him, there was an immediate connection  between him and me. He is a very warm person."  When the two meet in the sacristy before  Mass,  John greets Tom with a hug.

Being a friend to John "is a huge gift,"   he said,  . " I get so much out of it. Just the feeling of helping someone like John. "   He said people come up to him after seeing him and John  on the altar and say things,  like  " this makes coming to Mass worthwhile, just to see you guys on the altar there. " Tom  is the father of two grown children, neither of whom is mentally challenged. 
 
            Tom believes  John has great faith and understands the Mass. "He'll often point to the cross ."  During singing, Tom draws close to John so  his friend can hear Tom singing  . " He'll look at me then. "   Tom has taught his friend how to bow. Jean Pharr , John's sister  and one of his two guardians,  can recall their mother ( now deceased ) saying how her son after Mass would  fold his hands and say in his sign language, Thank you  Jesus, for my Mom. Thank you, Jesus, for my father and my family.
            
     This reporter interviewed John's family one  November afternoon  in his sister Jean's  suburban home  in Prospect Heights.  Present were Jean,  Mary, her sister  and John's  other guardian , Andy Miller,  John's 88-year-old father , and Tom . Moving around us were the family's two dogs, Daisy and Hazel.  John was   absorbed in the television movie, "The Wizard of Oz ", and when I finally got his attention ,  he smiled widely and gave me his " I love you sign"  of an outstretched hand with three extended fingers . John is four -feet, six inches tall and weighs 128 pounds.  Mary is an antique dealer and has three children, one of whom has autism .  Jean is the mother of two children and works with her husband , an over-the-road freight broker; Mr. Miller  is retired  from the Western Electric AT&T company.

            John spends every other weekend with one of his sisters.  During the week, he is cared for at   Glenkirk , a  facility in  Northbrook , Illinois for developmentally disable individuals of all ages . He resides in one of Glenkirk's  several community living  homes . His fees are paid by Social Security and the State of Illinois. " It seems to work out real well for John,"  said Mr. Miller, a widower for the past three years.  "It was getting difficult to take care of  John alone.  " 

          
Giving his " I love you" sign , joined by his good friend
Tom Stengren 
        John continued to watch his movie while the five of us talked about his  characteristics, his likes and  dislikes, and  how his life has impacted that of his family.  John  likes McDonalds' hamburgers;  going through his magazine collection ; and watching action movies with super heroes—he cried when he thought Superman had died in a Batman movie.  He also likes to  shop at resale shops  for  picture books. " He likes routines, " Jean said. "Once you do something with him, he wants to do it all the time . " John  dislikes eggs.

John eventually turned away for the TV, made his I love you sign to me   and posed with the dogs for a photo. 

Though John has been diagnosed as having  the mentality of a seven-year-old,  " He's very capable of doing things for himself, like getting dressed, "  Jean said. He needs some help taking a shower, though. He can feed himself  but needs help in cutting  meat. "He's very willing  to do things that  please people, " Mary added. 

Anything make John sad ?  " Not getting his way, " a family member replied.  We laughed. What about discipline ?  " He needs correction at times, but you really can't discipline him, " Jean said.  " You tell him  he's got to behave and that what he was doing was wrong. But he wouldn't understand if you denied him something  because what he did was wrong. He would just get angry. "

            In 2003 , John's mother ,  Louise,  and her husband wrote a 59-page history of their son with this preface: He [ John ] would never be able to tell us  [ his] story so maybe we can put together a story about John  that will someday mean something  and help someone. Some of their notes were:
            He collects newspapers and will take the neighbor's if not watched; Collects Disney books; loud noises bother him, like a barking dog or someone screaming; at Glenkirk, he will dance alone except when a  staff member asks him;   He feels everyone is his friend;  You can’t  hurry  John…let him think about it and make up his own mind;  needs a room to himself for space to move furniture around;  He does not like change, needs frequent reminders about upcoming changes and events.
  
                                                          Some Stats about Down Syndrome
John,  many years ago, with Fr. Bill Zavaski,
St. James pastor emeritus
            According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome, making Down syndrome the most common genetic condition. Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome and about 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year. The society's  on-line report adds that , due to advances in medical technology, individuals with Down syndrome are living longer than ever before. In 1910, children with Down syndrome were expected to survive to age nine. With the discovery of antibiotics, the average survival age increased to 19 or 20. Now, with recent advancements in clinical treatment, most particularly corrective heart surgeries, as many as 80% of adults with Down syndrome reach age 60, and many live even longer.

         
  The extraordinary love shown in raising  John began the day he was born at Lutheran General hospital in nearby Park Ridge. Mrs. Miller's mother was in Iowa recovering from a heart attack, and  the family, knowing that  her daughter-in-law  had just given birth to a child with Down syndrome, was  concerned how this news would effect  her.  When her physician went into Mrs. Miller's  room with the news,   she gave her a  poem .

Heaven's Very Special Child
A meeting was held quite far from earth 
"It's time again for another birth" 
Said the angel to the Lord above, 
"This special child will need much love. 
"His progress may seem very slow, 
Accomplishments he may not show, 
And he'll require extra care 
From the folk he meets way down there. 
"He may not run, or laugh, or play 
His thoughts might seem quite far away, 
In many ways he won't adapt, 
And he will be known as handicapped.


"So let's be careful where he's sent 
We want his life to be content. 
Please, Lord find the people who 
Will do a special job for You. 
"They will not realize right away 
The leading role they're asked to play, 
But with this child sent from above 
Comes stronger faith and richer love. 
"And soon they'll know the privilege given 
In caring for this gift from Heaven 
Their precious charge, so meek, so mild 
Is Heaven's very special child!" 

( written anonymously )

           
       In preparing John's mother for the same news, a nurse went  to her bedside and injected  her with a tranquilizer. Mrs. Miller  later wrote in the family journal:  " [ The doctor ]  came in to tell me that John had Down syndrome. He didn't want me to see  John or hold him but wanted us to take time to think about placing him in an institution. "

         
At his sister Jean's home  with Tom Stengren ( on left ) , his
father Andy Miller, and sisters Jean Pharr (back left) and
Mary Prechodko. 
  When during our recent  interview I asked  John's father  if  raising his son had been a challenge , he glanced over at John and warmly  said:  "It's been a challenge from the day he was  born.  We were under a lot of pressure when he was  born to give him up and put him in an institution, that he'd be such a burden on us that we wouldn't be able to take care of him . "  Mr. Miller got the same advice from a pediatrician and a priest . " That's what they were taught in those days. " 
            When a newly ordained priest came to hospital to baptize John and saw how the family truly felt , he suggested they visit  Misericordia ,  a large residential community in Chicago   for  disabled children and adults with diverse backgrounds .  Mr. Miller went to Misericordia to look things over. "The first thing I noticed was this little guy  , maybe two years old, walking around. I asked the nun, ' why is he here ? '   She said, 'He shouldn't  be. He should be home with his parents . '  I became convinced not to listen to the doctors . We never  changed our minds." The doctor    who had originally  advised that John be institutionalize,  years later   "confessed to  us how wrong he had been and was glad we hadn't listened  to  him,  "   Mr.  Miller related .

             John  graduated at age 21 from the Kirk School for the  developmental disabled  and continued to learn  independent living skills. "The family's goal has always been to have John live as independently as possible,"  his sister Mary said. 

            The Miller family journal entitled  " This Is John's Story"  closed  with these words:  "We have benefitted immensely from things he has taught us like unconditional love and patience. He helps keep us grounded and to realize what the important and simple things are in life. "

            Said Tom Stengren, " I love John. Every time I look at John, I feel the presence of Jesus. If that isn't love,  I don't know what is." 

          Among  the  paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City hangsThe Adoration of the Christ Child , circa 1515 , by Dutch artist Jan Joest (http://www.downsyndromeprenataltesting.com/down-syndrome-diagnosis-at-the-adoration-of-the-christ-child/ )  According to the museum's website , when a Dr. Levitas , who specializes in psychiatric disorders in people with developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome,  first approached this painting, he noticed in  the features of the small angelic figure depicted next to Mary and those of  the shepherd standing one row back  ;  they were  the distinctive features of Down syndrome: a flat face, folded eyelids, small nose and down-turned mouth.

The End
All comments are welcome.
© 2017 Robert R. Schwarz


           
             
           


                                          


Saturday, December 17, 2016

AN EXAMINED LIFE OF A RARE MEEK MAN , part 4



Part four of four parts   

By Robert R. Schwarz

And He [ Jesus ] has  said to me, " My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is perfected
 in weakness. " ….For when  I am  weak,
 then  I am strong.  ( The Apostle Paul, 2
  Corinthians 12: 9,10 )

Meekness is an attribute of human nature and behavior.
It has been defined several ways: righteous, humble,
teachable, patient under suffering, and willing to follow
 gospel teachings….Meekness means restraining one's
own power, so as to allow room for others. (Wikipedia,
                        the online encyclopedia  )

           
A few  introductory words [  from Part  I ]… Dear Reader, with these few  thousand words  I have presented to you Bruce Kuss , a kind of man whom  many of  us  have met and instinctively trusted.  Yet, for some reason, we tend to instinctively avoid friendship with people like Bruce and forever avoid asking  why. 

I am a journalist and former  facilitator of interpersonal  communication   workshops ,  influences which spurred me to find out why I was one of those who perceived Bruce as someone I could trust  yet  never tolerate as a friend.  
***
XII         
Bruce in his rehab  room nowadays 
  Bruce persevered with his rehabilitation at Avanti. For two weeks , he declined to see me.  "I've got a cough , and I don't want to give it to you, " he said. It was a typical and  selfless consideration of his. He did his best to  avoid getting close to people in the  dinning room. Unfortunately, one woman with  undetected pneumonia did got too close him . Bruce contacted her illness and a day later fell to the lunchroom floor . At Lutheran General,  doctors also discovered he had  had a mild stroke and,  for some time , also  an    abdominal hernia .  They couldn't  operate because of Bruce's still- weakened  heart.  Bruce found himself back  at  Avanti and on a diet of  pureed food .  He hated every swallow of it. 
            I visited  Bruce weekly at Avanti ; it as an expansive,  two- floor building  with a few hundred patients , many of them without private  funds and  placed there by  families  barely able   to afford the monthly fees . The hallways swarmed with nurses aids of Philippine or Latino descent.  Bruce had lost so much weight that his clothes took on a clownish appearance. He was daily swallowing  14 meds.  At first he was in a wheelchair, then shuffled down  hallways  on a walker. His nights were often  sleepless because his  partially demented roommate would wake up  during the night screaming. " For heaven's sake, " I told Bruce, " try at least to talk to your roommate about it, talk to the staff. " But Bruce did not want to cause any more discomfort to  his roommate.  If had  remonstrated with him for  what I thought was  excessive  charity,  he wouldn't have understood . Always the gentleman,  Mr. Kuss dismissed the clichĂ©:  the squeaky wheel gets oiled .    
Bruce  slid into  deep depression; his face became grayish, he walked slower, talked less and  often  took a full minute  to  voice a thought . Sometimes  he just stared at me, wide-eyed .    I once lost my cool  and  pleaded loudly for  him to say something, anything. My imposing behavior put me on a guilt trip until  Bruce  one day reminded me of  the metaphor which  the prophet Isaiah used to describe Jesus :  a lamb that is  led to the slaughter…so He did not open his mouth.   
            The first time Bruce was  given an  antidepressant , his legs froze the next morning. For months he wasn't given any antidepressants  to combat his depression.  A few times when we prayed together , Bruce would come " alive" for a few moments, only to relapse into depression.   I once asked him what he wanted most in life,  hoping it would be in my power to help him obtain it. His  barely audible reply was ,  "I'd like to get my personality back."
 I wanted so badly  to see my  coffee buddy become a "person" again that  I broke the few  rules I now knew about caring for a clinically   depressed  person.  I told him to face his depression aggressively as he did  when being trained eight weeks  by that tough  Army drill instructor   to fight aggressively . I lectured , preached , pleaded . If he  got angry, that  was okay… anything to make him come humanly alive . Finally I said,   " Bruce, have you gone to your  knees and begged God to heal you ?  Have you " ? !  A dumb question ?   
He nodded his head. " What the  does that nod mean?"  I demanded.
" All I want is some friendly conversation,  "  he whispered. 
Of course, I thought. Of course ! . " Bruce,  I miss our friendship."
" I understand, " he said .
I welcomed those  two words  , for they told me he had forgiven me for those  strident exhortations.  But then  Bruce gently chastised  me as forgiving father might:  "You know, Bob, people have to work out their illnesses in their own way. "
Now I got it ! 
I reminded an attendant that my friend's fingernails were horribly long and if she would please cut them. She did.  On my birthday, Bruce mailed me a greeting card , and I swallowed  hard when I saw how barely legible his signature was; the letters were tiny and squeezed together.  It was the first symptom of  Parkinson's  Disease.
Bruce was given a wheelchair and a new regimen of meds for his depression and now Parkinson's Disease. He had no car, no money, no health. He wanted badly to be returned isto Asbury , but it had a regulation against re-admitting a  resident whose meals had to be pureed.  My friend's face had  turned ashen and  his speech  slow and throaty  and  hard to understand.  He did  look like a lamb  being led to the  slaughter . One evening, after reading this epigram of Saint Francis de Sales, a great figure of the 17th Century rebirth of religious  mystical life, I set it  aside for a possible eulogy for my friend: 
                        I am a poor, frightened little creature,  the baby of the family,
                        timid and shy by nature and completely lacking in self-
                        confidence; and that is why I should like people to let me
                        live unnoticed and all on my own according to my
                        inclination,  because I have to make such enormous efforts
                        about shyness and my excessive fears….I have been
                        slighted and I rejoice: that is what the Apostles did. So to
                        live according to the spirit is to do what faith, hope and
                        charity teach us to do, whether in things temporal or things
                        spiritual….So, rest in the arms of God's mercy and fatherly
                        goodness. 

XIII
With his niece Connie (left ) and rehab nurse Emmie
 Bruce had come back to life  the next time I  visited him . In in his room, he talked to  me for at least 20 minutes , enjoying memories of a past trip to Las Vegas with his mother and sister. "Can I bring you a book or a magazine ?  I asked. He said reading made him nervous.  He declined to watch television in his room  but ,  taking his caregiver's advice to be  stimulated mentally and physically,  he had begun to play a disc-pushing  Nintendo bowling game , though worried he might throw his arm out.  "Don't quit ," I exhorted him . He said he wouldn't. Bruce  was now incontinent .  For a man accustomed to  emotional privacy all of his adult life, I can only imagine his reactions during those first few days of the nurse's aide helping him to  and from his bathroom. 
            When I returned home  after our visit on Sept, 26, 2014,  I made the following notes;  though Bruce has not yet that morning  taken his antidepressants , his eyes appeared  focused on      what he wanted  to tell me , and when he did, his voice was calm and deliberate like  that of an announcer on a public radio FM station , a man  whom you trusted to do you no harm. 

Played  the silly child game of who could stare the longest at one another without breaking  up.   Now and then he shifted his head and moved his eyebrows only slightly. Did this for at least 5 minutes.  He kept staring straight ahead and I  kept praying: "Lord, please stir some emotion in him. " But none came. Most of the time his eyes  focused on a spot halfway between his chair and mine. Arms remained dangling straight down from his sides.

Finally, realized  this could go on forever   and said :" Bruce,  do me a favor: Tell me: what's going on inside you?  What are your thoughts? What are you feeling? Please say something

No response. Then, at least two minutes later, he says: "It's hard to put into words." He stumbled for more of an answer. He finally says:  " I realize I'm not the best of company." 

I made some reference that he and I had been staring at each other like  two dead  men.

" What do you want, Bruce?  Tell me." 

"Nothing much." 

" Where  would like to drive to if you could?"  

He mentioned Big Spider Lake,   but I failed to draw him into any more  except for how  he used to take  his rowboat out  alone. But  never fished. Never did ask why ? 

" Do you care if I never visit you again ?" I was reaching .

" I wouldn't like that. "

 Told him his words were first really human expression I  heard from  him  in months!"  I pointed to his TV. "Even reacting to something on television that angers you or gives you joy is good for you. But If you don't  respond to people talking to you, they think you don't  like them …..You know, nobody will talk to you like I do  "

Gave him a choice of my reading to  him a booklet from Alexian Brothers behavioral center or  the  bible about heaven .  He chose the booklet,  " When God doesn't answer your prayers. " I read for 10 minutes.

I say, "Did you like what I read? " 

"Yes."

I left the booklet on the table. We  prayed, me first, then he did. He says,  " God, help us to speak the truth. " 

I rose and said: " I think you're on your way to recovery  ! "

" I hope so." 

    Dear Friends,  I hope this letter finds you all well and enjoying the Christmas season. I want you to know that I think of you often ! I have had some health problems ….Due to Parkinson's Disease and a minor stroke, I have weaknesses in my legs  and some trouble with speech… I am hopeful for a healthier  2016 ! I miss living at Asbury Court, but am getting good care here and  don't worry about any more falls.   While the food    is not always as delicious as at my old favorite  restaurants, I do have nice people to talk to  and I get lots  of visits from my old friend, Bob Schwarz,  and my niece Connie, and her family. …Wishing you a happy 2016, Bruce Kuss .

XIV
A former co-worker delights Bruce with memories and a greeting 
  In late 2015, Bruce's  anti-depressants were doing their job 24-7. He wrote this letter to me and  others: 
     Truth was Bruce could hardly stand . Nearly all the people around him had dementia. His family visits, except from  Connie,  amounted to occasional phone calls from a nephew in Texas and another  niece , who lived in Pennsylvania.  He admitted  he'd  be "lost" without the friendship of Connie and me.  Yet Bruce exuded a quiet independence from everything on earth . Paradoxically, he had a love affair  with a   phenomenal recall of every  bit of news or  data that  had entered his ears about distant friends—dead and alive—since his retirement . Again and again  I  would hear him recite even the most trivial , recent events in their lives  he had learned from Connie or during one of those  long-distance phone calls with his nephew  or other niece .  It seemed that simply talking to me  about friends and family was a manifestation  of life itself  for Bruce. When asked what friends he had  made here, Bruce shook his head , saying, "They are pretty much to themselves. "
         I  had observed , however, that Bruce and the nursing staff liked and respected each other . Remarked  Connie, "Almost everywhere I have taken  him, when people find out  he is my uncle, they say 'he's the nicest man ! ' "   Staff people here , she noted, " never hear a bad word from him ."   As for  memories of Bruce  as an uncle of her children , Connie added, " He was   a wonderful, doting uncle for us, taking us out for miniature golf and bowling . I really love him. "      
     Yet, contrary to what Avanti visitors might read on  Bruce's face,  he  was ( by  his own admission)    content .  His life enjoyed a security which I believe he had not known since the death of his father  and mother.  "The depression meds help," he told me , "As long  as I have someone around me who's worse off,  I'm okay…like  when I saw that man here the other day , over six feet tall with a cane and losing his mind. " Twice monthly a retired Protestant minister  drives down  from Wisconsin  to teach an hour-long Bible class in the visitor's lounge for  six or seven residents. There are few questions ; Bruce asks none , but I've seen him listen attentively.    Two or three times a month volunteers come in to sing old time favorites or tap dance.   The food, except for breakfast , was so distasteful to him that Connie had provided for him a constant  supply of vitamin-enriched  snacks. 
     When I again  asked Bruce what his goals were and what  he wanted to be remembered for, he replied: " Staying alive, keeping my mind sharp to the end,  as was my mother's mind, and that I cared for people."  His  wishes to be buried in the cemetery of his  father  near the Indiana farm of his father's childhood.  Our  prayers sometimes end with me asking God to help Bruce be a "ray of sunshine" to all the Avanti residents patients who sit around him in the dinning-recreation  room all day long.  "Thanks for that prayer , Bob, " he'd say to me . " I needed that. "  In replying  to my question years ago about his faith life,  Bruce had told me,  " I believe in the power of prayer, but I don't pray about trivial things..and right now I'm praying about my back pain. "   
      I firmly told Bruce that he was mentally alive much more than all the others on his second floor wing and never to forget  the  mission I was sure  God had given him  to be a blessing  to  these people. " If you don't, no one here will ," I  told him.  Bruce's usually ended his petition to God  with, " Help us to be the people you want us to be. " It became one  of my favorite prayers.  
        That night  at home, I came across these words that  prefaced  a  liturgy read that morning in  my church . It commented  on what Jesus had to say about how some of  us will be  last  to enter Heaven , others the first to enter.   What makes some first ? is asked. The reply:  Could it be because they obeyed  the deepest desires of their hearts—and that  obedience   unfailingly   led them to do the will of God  ? 
        Recently,   I drove  Bruce one day to  the food court  near  his  former employer, Sears Roebuck. While wheeling Bruce through the shopping  mall, he had me stop outside a barber shop he once frequented. The barber and Bruce  chatted happily for a minute or two. After lunch, Bruce couldn't resist revisiting the  Sears shoe department. I never asked what his thoughts were as  he gazed at salespeople and customers interacting and  but did wonder  if he saw a credit card application being tendered . My friend  signaled he wanted to leave ,  murmuring over his shoulder, " I miss the people but not the work . " He considered  the highlight of his career was  the friends he had made at Sears.  
" My career highlight was making friends
[ like these two ] where I worked "
On a summer-like day in November , 2016, I  put Bruce and his wheelchair into my car for  nostalgia drive to his old haunts.  We  stopped at Sears , and I asked two former   co-workers of Bruce if they would  kindly leave their shoe department and come out to the parking lot and see  an old friend.  I never saw Bruce smile so widely  as when they greeted him . I took photographs.   One co-worker,   Mrs. Jesus Figueroa , who worked with Bruce  for eight years,  hugged him twice. She remembered Bruce as a "good , and happy employee, always on time. "  The other former co-worker, Paul Boldt , 65, worked with Bruce for 20 years . He overstayed himself  in our presence  to reminisce about  Bruce and telling us how Bruce  "got along with everyone  , always had a good story to tell,  and never had a bad  word for anyone  because he saw the good in everyone. "  Bruce was of the "old school of sales, " he said, " and made sure the customer got what the customer wanted. " 
        Driving back to Avanti, Bruce broke a long silence with a remark so unexpectedly charitable    that I twinged.    "Sears was very good keeping me as long as they did , " he said.  "A lot of companies  wouldn’t have done that. " He actually considered this  to be a major highlight of his life.  "But  44 years was enough ,"  he added . " I just wish I had learned more about computers.  But I was glad  to get away from registers and do stock work. "
     When I  asked Connie why her nephew hadn't been  proactive about  his year-after-year worsening situation at Sears, she explained  that, yes, she had been aware of changes at Sears  with which Bruce had been struggling . " When they first hired him," she said, " Sears was more like an old fashion department store . We always knew Bruce  was uncomfortable with computers and changes in cash registers.  But I think Bruce felt that  if he just kept working hard and being a good person,  life would go his way. "  Then  she added  that  when her nephew realized   life can also turn bad for good  people who work hard  and can   only  be changed if  the individual makes a major change in his or  her life,  he  felt threatened  by that possibility.  Most threatening was the fact that to get that pay raise  he had been without for  18  years, he'd have to become a  different kind of salesman, a different kind of man.   To rid himself of this threat , Connie believed her nephew denied the full  reality of his health, his ageing, and  his finances.  " Because Bruce was so private  and  independent,  it was hard for him to stop and hear someone who might have some good advice,  "  she said. 
       Bruce jolted me  once with his good will remarks  towards a company which , by standards of human justice,  had treated him wrongly for so many years. "They were as gentle as they could be to get the job  done of getting me out of there . "
      I asked , " And that didn't hurt you ? ! "
     "Not really, because there's so much competition  out there that if you don't  have people who know what they're doing …you don't keep them on . "  He had obviously been thinking about  his inability to operate a  computer.
    Sounding like an unsatisfied  courtroom attorney, I asked my friend,  " You believe that Sears treated you fairly ? "
     "I only wish they had given us cost-of-living raises .  Gasoline in my years there went from 32 cents a gallon to three-dollars and seventy-two cents.  That hurt. "          
          While taking an evening walk a few days later,  I began to question all that life had taught me about  the  difference between  human weakness and strength .

XV     I began to visit my friend  (  and still do )  on Saturday or Sunday mornings . As I wheel Bruce into the all-purpose dining room ,  I  usually interrupt  a bingo game or a  version of  the television show  "Jeopardy" . We go to the visitor's lounge and sit  and  talk for an hour.  He  had a lot of opinions about Hillary and Donald during   the Presidential election . Bruce does not read newspapers but allows  television news to scan the world for him .  The ups and down of corporate business ups was still a  favorite Kuss  topic; when I, with my limited knowledge of economics,  voiced a  few  words about the "trickledown" effect of money earned by  the very wealthy,  Bruce grew serious and a little loud :  " The trickledown effect doesn't work anymore !  I once saw a man at the Shedd Aquarium feeding fish underwater, going from one school to the other in  the same tank. Why, I asked myself, doesn't he just throw in all the food at once. No, I answered. Then the big fish  would  gobble it all up at once. And that's why it's best today to spread our wealth around wisely to people who need it the most rather than giving  big chunks of  our tax money  to  bad Wall Street boys and those  bleeding hearts in Congress . "  Though I suspected that his argument had a non sequitur or two , I loved hearing my buddy assert himself.
        But the topic that got us buzzing was  Hollywood stars and the old movies Bruce and I saw as kids.  Bruce seemed to know them all: He liked Alan Ladd ( " Shane" ), William Holden ( " Bridge on the River Kwai  , Charles Laughton ( " Witness f or the Prosecution" ) . But he didn't care that much for John Wayne—can you imagine !  We were  sentimental about the Andrew Sisters , but when he cheered Lawrence Welk , I was set to tease him about it when I saw tears  my friend's eyes as he said, " Welk  never did his shows for money, Bob , but to bring people together. "
     Connie told me she had delivered   an email to Bruce informing him of a   class action suit filed by former Sears executives who had complained to the  court  that they had been fired without  back pay for vacation and sick days. The email  stated , she said, that Bruce might be legally  entitled to as much as $1,400. Bruce read it,  but could not remember anything about unpaid vacation or sick days.  

XVI  
Whatever is menial, puny, insignificant—this can expect
to eventuate into the Kingdom of God. Why? Because it
permits the greatness of God to make something out of
its littleness…  ( anonymous )
 
      Each  time I now see Bruce, he  is thinner, his cheek bones  more prominent , and his voice (due to the Parkinson's ) , is so throaty that I often ask him to repeat his words . My friend  has lost everything…but has  he ?   A few days before my brother Lester died, I knew he, too,  had lost even more than Bruce. Since a teacher fresh from college  and soon thereafter an officers' school  in U.S. Air Force,  Lester had been painfully trekking  a zigzag  trail  towards his River Jordan. 
         I asked Lester , who was  wretchedly being  kept alive in  bed with a respirator,  "Les, if by some miracle, you could have everything back today that you wanted, would you take it ? "  In those few  last hours of his life , I knew by  the many  notes he had scribbled to me,  that my brother had become  fully human and mentally  sober. In his eyes ,eyes which I had to often analyze for him for more than four decades,   I was reminded of a freedom described by centuries of Christian mystics and the Church's Desert Fathers. This was the freedom called  Dying to Self, a freedom from the  constrictions of a disordered world, from a body  with disordered  chemistry and temptations , and from a Devil who has been named  the Father of Lies.
    Before answering my question, my brother thought for awhile. He turned his head to look out the  window , then smiled, looked  briefly at the risen Christ figurine I had put on his wall, then , with a single slow shake of his head , said no to my imagined miracle— and seized  freedom .   
       This was no  surrender  in exchange for a peaceful death.  In recalling during the past year, all the tender communications  and spontaneous smiling  faces I had  witnessed   Lester and doctors, nurses, and visitors  exchange with each other in Lester's room , and then weighing that against all the impediments of body and mind that had blocked  my brother from loving both himself,  people, and God,  I now knew instinctively  that Lester had  been given the deepest yearning  of  the human heart: He could love God, his neighbor, and himself.
          When nowadays when I pray for Bruce at night, I no longer see a weak or foolish man , but someone strong and wise and who has , in unfathomable ways, always enjoyed  a fabulous freedom, something which took my brother a hellish lifetime to gain. I think of those words of the Apostle Paul:  Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for  Christ' sake; for when I  am weak, then I am strong. ( 2 Corinthians 12: 10).  As for me, this guy Paul  reminds me—and shames me— with these words:  God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things that are strong.  ( 1 Corinthians 1:27 ) .
         Sometimes when I'm with  Bruce , I see his old boss  bullying him with shouts  of unjustified anger; and it angers me. I am soothed, though, when I  read from the Apostle Peter : …and while being reviled,  He [Christ ] did not revile  in return; while suffering,  He uttered no threats . (1 Peter 2:23 ) .
     Perhaps one tribute to Bruce's  life should be that despite all the pressures of the world  to reshape  it, to  change it in ways which  our culture claims  are  legitimate , normal, and demanded  for survival,  Bruce steadfastly opted for the better part.   
          Lastly, dear Reader,  that profound and seemingly elusive answer to the question which Bruce , Lester and many of  us have asked about why God allows  suffering , could  best be  answered by the Greatest  Sufferer of all time . And as He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, " Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,  that he should be born blind ? Jesus answered, " It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but is was in order that the works of God might  be displayed in him." 




The End


All comments are welcome.
© 2016, 2017 Robert R. Schwarz






Saturday, December 10, 2016

AN EXAMINED LIFE OF A RARE MEEK MAN ( part 3 of 4 )

Part three of four parts  

By Robert R. Schwarz

And He [ Jesus ] has  said to me, " My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is perfected
 in weakness. " ….For when  I am  weak,
 then  I am strong.  ( The Apostle Paul, 2
 Corinthians 12: 9,10 )

    The meek man is not a human mouse afflicted
    with a sense of his own inferiority. Rather he
   may be in his moral life as bold as a lion and
   as strong as Samson; but he has stopped being
   fooled about himself. He has accepted God's
   estimate of his own life. He knows he is as
   weak and helpless as God declared him to be,
   but paradoxically, he knows at the same time
   that he is in the sight of God of more importance
   than angels. In himself, nothing; in God, everything.
   That is his motto. ( A.W. Tozer , 1897-1963 ,
American Christian pastor, author, magazine editor,
and spiritual mentor. ) 

IX    
Bruce with infant and toddler of his
two nieces
During his  44  years  at Sears , Bruce  sold  cameras  ,  furniture and  shoes, earning a reputation for unquestionable honesty and company loyalty. The Sears store —I gathered from Bruce, whom  I often had to prod for the unpleasant facts—had become  home to him more  than his apartment . For the  first few decades, his days were peacefully predictable and work-satisfying, especially  in the camera section . This was true  despite the many  draconian rules for its approximate 500 employees .   Then, top store management began cutting back hours  of its full-time employees  and  , according to Bruce, began   firing some for minor  infraction of rules.  Employees who quit  or were  fired , Bruce told me , were systematically replaced with part-time help whose hours were changed mercurially from week to week,  supposedly to meet to company cash flow demands . Not having to give these particular employees medical benefits also helped Sears'  profit line.
             Bruce and several others had not received  a  pay raise for 18 years ,   or if they had , their  net salary  after the reduction of hours  remained the same. " If we complained,  they would find some reason to let us go," Bruce told me. Near the end of 2011, his hours were cut to five on some weeks. My friend began thinking about moving to a lower-rent apartment in Chicago but procrastinated for  years  because he could not envision living elsewhere.  I told my wife,   " I think Bruce married two wives, Sears and Park Ridge—for better or worse. " 
Bruce  opted for a small payout from Sears instead of a pension, which he correctly predicted would eventually be eliminated for all employees .  He had an uncompromising distaste  for management's new directive that all sales employees do their very  best to sell  customers credit card applications.  Bruce and others were  given a  daily quota of  nine   applications.  Bruce  usually sold no more than five, and then only to customers  at  whom he had not pitched an application  unless they  appeared to understand the non-payment penalties of a  contract loaded with fine print . Any form  of pressurized selling had always been   inimical to Bruce's  ethics and temperament . "I just couldn't 'pressure people to sign up when I sensed they really didn’t want it," he said.
       
With his buddy Bob Schwarz in front
of  Bruce' s frequented dinner spot in
Park Ridge
 
  At coffee one day,  he explained:  "Bob, I see more of  our customers going into debt they can't live with. Many can't help skipping a payment now and then and then wind up paying 20 per cent interest on it. Some of salesmen don't tell  all the facts before  the  customer signs the credit application, or never do tell them. . They  tell them that payments are 'interest free'!  And Sears tells us  salesmen how great  this application is for this store because  the customer will spend much more with it than with cash . Can you      believe that"?!
            Bruce explained that  a certain bank pays Sears $12 for each application it sells, with $2 going as a  bonus to the salesman . The bank owns the credit t card company and  collects the punishing  interest payment when the customer defaults, Bruce said.  He obviously loathed any bank which got rich off debt-ridden people who had acted out of ignorance or bad judgment . This credit issue continue to vex Bruce for months.  ( I learned  from two employees  that the pressure  on Sears employees at Golf Mill  to sell a daily quota of  credit cards remains today .)  Fully aware of what he thought was managements' tacit message of make your quota or else look elsewhere for work, Bruce remained steadfast with his ethic.
Bruce related that when  a  Sears executive from the home office visited the store one day and learned that he had  repeatedly  failed to get his quota of applications ,  the executive  told Bruce's section manager to fire him. But the manager liked Bruce and talked  the executive into having Bruce transferred to the furniture department , where for at least a  year  , he   unwrapped  and carted sofas and armchairs . His health began to gradually wane—he had suffered a heart attack circa 1970  from which  he had  recovered. Eventually Bruce was assigned to  stocking shoe inventory .    
            Now in his seventies, Bruce's weekly hours had been reduced to 15 , sometimes less.  He spent a good part of the day climbing a tall inventory ladder to re-stock  or retrieve shoe boxes; it  gave him back pain. Was this, Bruce asked himself, Sears' final attempt to force him  to leave ?  Bruce did want to quit ; his Social Security check was barely enough for  his monthly  rent of $650 and    there was no  money left from the company payout he had taken years ago .
" But , Bruce, " I said with a judgmental  tone, " You saw this day coming, didn't you ?" He looked at me with a calm and pensive face , which told me my question was dumb and  unfair.
He replied:   " There was no money to save. "
           Over  coffee in late 2013, I asked Bruce what challenged him nowadays . He surprised me with: "It's not knowing if I'll be up to again having to adjust to the  management style of a new boss. "   One of Bruce's co-workers whom I interviewed years later said, "She wasn't the best. " Another described her as "mean, even with me . "
Over the next few weeks, I gleaned the following account from Bruce: Pushing him  towards a life  finale,  I believe ,  was this  new boss . She was young and obviously ambitious and , for reasons unknown to this day, found Bruce disturbing . One day , when Bruce  had remained after quitting  hours to voluntarily tidy up some inventory,  she started inexplicably to shout  at him , much like she had twice before.
 "She'd start yelling at me angrily , " Bruce related, still feeling the wound.  "  ' What are you hanging around here for ?! ' All I could do , Bob, was stand there and look at her.  I don’t know why she was angry. I had been working hard and wanted to please her. "
Bruce had been stung hard  and wanted to  be free of her but didn't know how.
I thought deeply about Bruce's boss and asked myself, was she  one of those humans who  are repelled by what they perceive as  inexcusable and intolerable  weaknesses  in people . Or had  observing   Bruce's  character for the past three months  sent her a subliminal message that something vital in her character was missing ? Or did the thought of ever becoming in the least like a Bruce actually threaten her enough to  hate him , to  lash out at him , to be rid of him ? I thought of  the fear and hatred the Pharisees had for Jesus when His constant and  obvious goodness had  become   so obnoxious to them,  that when merely to look at  Him was a hardship  demanding He be tested to the limit. 
Bruce quite Sears on Jan. 26, 2012. His "mean" boss quit a month later.  The head store manager and a few co-workers arranged a retirement  event for Bruce  in the store cafeteria. There was no wrist watch or severance pay . But there were a few "goodbye-it's-been-good-to-know-you "  comments from the manager . There also was  coffee and two strawberry cakes.
" Why didn't you fight back ? " I asked Bruce with heated frustration.   "  I mean , I never heard of a  large company  like Sears not giving an employee a raise for, what, 18 years ?  "
" Anything like mention of a union or  a simple protest to your boss would have gotten me fired , " he said.  " It  happened to others.  Besides I had no place to go. I had started to look for another place to work l5  years ago. But I guess I was  too old even then. "
Vaguely I sensed there was something important  I was learning from Bruce, but  was apprehensive about where it was leading me.
 
Age 22 and home on leave from Army
X     With the  help of his niece Connie ,  Bruce moved  into  Asbury Court , a large low-cost retirement community  in nearby Des Plaines . If driving,  it was easy to miss ; Asbury was  only a few years beyond its parking lot entrance and  a traffic-laden highway that immediately ascended over a toll way bridge.
It was a long walk to Bruce's room,  down long narrow corridors , past dozens of doors on which many of  the aged residents  had placed a few artificial flowers .  His  room was perhaps 10 feet wide and 25 feet long; it had a narrow  bed, microwave oven  and a small  television set . Connie had tacked on the wall several old and faded black and white family  photos ; others were in frames on  a  small desk.   A black and white framed  etching of Jesus  was on a bedside table--his  open display of  faith surprised me.  Bruce's  Social Security check, less $100 for discretionary  expenses,  was surrendered each month to Asbury.
           A few months after Bruce  had moved into his new " home "  he was walking out to his parked old  Chevy  when he began losing his  breath.  Asbury called a doctor , and Bruce was admitted to an intensive care unit at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. The  heart  which 43 years ago had  required an angioplasty  was now pumping blood with only 15 per cent efficiency.  Doctors implanted a pacemaker and a defibrillator , and   Bruce was taken to the Avanti rehab center in Niles for a few weeks  .            
            He  returned to Asbury after a month of  fighting off depression at Avanti and barely tolerating my sophomoric words of encouragement, like " Bruce, you have to summon up the gumption to fight this depression as you did to get through your Army basic training. " Several times he accepted  my invitation  for  us to pray together. He listened to me read an article about depression , but only to respond—with justifiable  irritation— "reading makes me nervous".  When he added,  "All I want is friendly conversation ",  I recognized my ignorance about depression.  Bruce  was still eating his  pureed food and taking medication to rid his stomach  of  excessive bile which  prevented him  eating the solid food that he missed terribly  . I tried to get him a private  room  but  his Social Security benefit was inadequate. Connie had begun to manage most of her nephew's affairs and continued  her weekly visits and to having  Bruce to her Chicago home for family holiday dinners.  
Within  a month , I was picking up my friend for our  weekly coffee.  Bruce was now using a walker and his right arm trembled when  he lifted a cup. Before driving off,  I'd  ask where  he wanted to go . "You  name it, " I said.  Invariably ,  he would  respond ,  " Wherever you want . " This time his typical  acquiescence irked me. Just once, I wanted him hear him assert  himself, show  a bit of self-centeredness.  I turned to Bruce my friend and  demanded, " I want to take  you where YOU want to go ! Okay ? "  My thought was : Bruce don't be so damn nice ! Don’t remind me of what I might need more of.
 Heeding doctor's advice,  Bruce stopped driving, and for five months his car remained with four flat tires in the Asbury  parking  lot  until  a mechanic bought it for  $500 .  Other than the death of his parents and sister , I don't believe Mr. Kuss was ever more saddened than  when  surrendering  what he considered was  his  last vestige of independence. 



XI
Sowing Lester's ashes across the Rock River--with a prayer
      In the spring of 2013 , my brother Lester died of complications from  emphysema . Connie drove her Uncle Bruce to my brother's memorial luncheon  at Sam's Restaurant in Arlington Heights, where he chatted amiably with 20 guests sitting at a long  table. A week later I invited Bruce and two other  friends , Rob Dobe and Torki Khamissi,  to a private ceremony for Lester at the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois .
            Bruce had known Lester since their  childhood days when our families celebrated holidays together and our fathers shared a rowboat to fish the spring-time  white bass river  run at Winneconne, Wisconsin.  When Bruce  and Lester lived in Park Ridge and my medicated brother was coping wretchedly with paranoid schizophrenia,  the two would exchange a brief salutation  a local lunch counter .  Later, when Lester was confined to a nursing home bed and kept alive by a web of tubes , Bruce   once visited him . A dozen or more visitors also saw my  brother  and prayed for  him at bedside —a few  praying  in "public"  for  the first time.  I surmised . Among them were  Rob , a middle-aged  unemployed  men's'  clothing  salesman  , who was challenged with so many serious  health issues ( several inherited ) that I often wondered how he stayed alive . He  daily  used  a bicycle for transportation, sometimes hitching it  onto a public bus or placing  it  in the back of a passenger train car.  The bike, due to an occasional spill or collision , need repair as much as Rob's body did.  Like Bruce , he  was a confirmed bachelor, and  worked with a church pastor at a sheltered home for adults afflicted with a variety of life challenges. Rob seemed to love everybody he passed on the street, often voicing a vigorous greet in passing.  I  knew for a fact—and remain amazed  by it— that his affection for people was quite human, neither triggered by any drug nor incited by a  mental  disorder . 
       Torki  was  a 35-year-old  Iranian immigrant who cleaned pots and pans all  night at a White Kitchen franchise. At the nursing home, he would  stand over my brother with  outstretched arms and pray in Farsi.  He  was married to an Iranian woman , Ahlam ,  who had returned to her native Iran upon hearing from a friend there that a man named Torki , a man  with a fourth-grade education and of a family recently made poor by the Iran-Iraqi war, would make a good husband.  Ahlam  often had me over ( once with Bruce ) to her modest apartment for a sumptuous Iranian meal .  Torki would forever  struggle to learn English . I taught him enough English, however, to pass his citizenship exam .
            Outside  Asbury, I blew the  horn for Bruce to exit.  He was wearing  the  plaid shirt my wife had given him a long time ago.  His long  convalescence  had left  him thin and weathered .
We drove to  Rob's s subsidized apartment  unit and tapped the  horn every five  minutes  for twenty minutes before our friend came out. It was always that way with Rob.  Before I opened the car door, I quickly  turned to Bruce to say , " I know he's been gargling with Listerine all this time. "  Rob did not want anyone to smell his nicotine breath , and because of my late brother's Lester's lethal cigarette addiction, Rob never smoked in  front of me. As usual, Rob was carrying a backpack—its contents  always unknown—and wearing a black cowboy hat with a  silver braid and an Irish fisherman's sweater I had give him years ago.  From the backseat, Rob reached over and hugged Bruce and me with his customary and genuine  greeting, " Love you guys ! " We drove 20 minutes  to Torki's condo. He greeted us with "Hello, my brudders . "
While heading towards Oregon, I strained my hearing to hear how Torki was handling his English . He apparently had given up trying to understand any of  what the incessantly-speaking  Rob had been telling him about the scenic countryside we were driving through. Rob began to frown from never getting a single word  of reaction from Torki.  To shield himself from Rob's verbal barrage , Torki turned his attention to Bruce up front and tried to engage him in a conversation about the national economy .
The scene brought me joy :  in  a metaphysical sense, I was  seeing the four of us,  disparate in personality and backgrounds yet part of one body very much alive.  I had to ask myself: were we living out in this hour  a  reality of a certain  frustratingly elusive Christian  concept ? Were the four of us alive as four  organs ,  each with a unique function  within  the Body of Christ as our heart and mind , all of us  fused to  an infinite number of faith-filled humans—dead and alive ?
We drove a few miles beyond the farming town of Oregon to the Rock River,  until we saw it bend  and disappear into a forest. I  drove the car off the road and parked it about a hundred  yards from a river bank.  We saw no one, which was good and well-timed , as was the surrounding stillness. The river, now high  and brown , was carrying small branches southward  towards the end  of its long  tributary to  the Mississippi and that to  ocean waters. 
I grabbed my brother's urn from the  trunk , and we walked to the river ,  remaining silent as we sloshed across  ankle-deep muck left  recent by spring rains.  Another urn containing my brother's ashes I had buried  in the All Saints cemetery after  his funeral blessing in my church's chapel. I reminded  my friends each was to take a handful of ashes, walk to the river's edge, and , while saying a prayer for Lester, cast them  outward.
I handed Torki the urn. We all watched in reverence as he tossed ashes, allowing gentle breezes  and a slow current  to carry them downstream. Then Torki thrust his arms skyward, and    for a good ten minutes, prayed  in Farsi. I wondered how Bruce  would express his piety  with three people standing behind him. He took the urn, set it down and   pulled a sheet of paper from his  pocket and read a prayer composed by the Rev. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German Lutheran hanged by the Nazis when implicated in the  failed plot to assassinate Hitler.  Bruce then tossed ashes, moving his lips in prayer.
     Lastly, I prayed, but never to  remember the words spoken to Lester and to God.  I do remember, however, a thought shared later with Bruce. It brought a faint smile to his face when I told him that surely my brother was pleased with what the four of us had offered up to  Lester for eternity  at the Rock River that day . Those moments were sacred,  I told  Bruce , and that  I hoped  our Father in  Heaven had responded to our prayers and now was making Lester perfectly complete.
The "Body  of Christ" at the Rock River...
( from left ) Rob, Bruce, and Torki

This completes part three of
this four-part article. 
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz





Saturday, December 3, 2016

AN EXAMINED LIFE OF A RARE MEEK MAN (part 2)

Part two  of four   

By Robert R. Schwarz

 And He [ Jesus ] has  said to me, " My grace
is sufficient for you, for power is perfected
          in weakness. " ….For when  I am  weak,
                                              then  I am strong.  ( The Apostle Paul, 2
                                             Corinthians 12: 9,10 )

             VI 
The Kuss Family: ( front row, from left ) Sister Elaine and son
Ryan; Willete, Bruce's mother; niece Connie; and Bruce, then 33.
            For the next 44 years, Bruce worked as a clerk in various departments of the Sears Roebuck and Company at the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles, Illinois.  He was, I believe, like  an orphan in need of a humanized  home. When I  once saw how his face could light up with contentment  as  he rang  up a sale for a pair of shoes  and handed it to an obviously  pleased   customer , I knew Bruce had found his  niche in life . And he now could  shield himself from his chronic  crowd-induced distress by  exercising his salesmanship skills. To his aid had also come those inanimate sales counters that emotionally walled him  off from anxious customers . Perhaps, what my friend really needed was a governor placed on his  overabundance of God-given empathy .
Sad events easily brought tears to his  eyes,  such as his hearing of as a young girl being killed  in front of a supermarket by a runaway car . Once or twice I resisted the temptation to advise him of the ancient proverb of those  three wise monkeys who , as depicted in  small tabletop  figurines ,   see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.
Whether it was the shoe , furniture or camera  ( best liked by him ) department where Bruce had been  placed precipitously by management,  he moved quickly and diligently around the   glass counters , always reaching  for the appropriate sales  item and ringing the cash register as  a  happy climax  . But the day Sears digitized its cash registers, Bruce felt  intimidated . He tried  hard to join the digital world—he never was to  own a computer—but, like many of us , was allergic to it.
His  speaking voice, particularly on the telephone ,  belied  Mr. Kuss's profile;  its mellow timbre  resonated with  self-control and perfect diction , easily reminding  one of a radio announcer or cool-headed executive.   A stranger might  hear a boorish monotone in his voice, but if attentive to it, would  hear sincerity instead.  To his credit, Bruce knew exactly who and what he was; he shared with me a thought about being short , now weighing 40 pounds  less since his army days .  " When they put me in the camera department at Sears," he related with a  frown of  self-disapproval. "I began to notice that when managers from the Sears home office visited the store, they all seemed to be six-foot-two ." 
             
VII      

A memory across the street on second floor center...
his monastic-like home for 30 years.
 
 In his simple apartment on Touhy Avenue , Bruce lived a monastic life for  three decades.  "He was  a private man, "  said his  niece  Connie Obrochta , a teacher who lived near Park Ridge.  "I got to see his apartment only once, when I helped him  move in and showed him how to work his hide-away bed. "
            I well knew my friend's typical day of  unchangeable routine . He was  up at 5 a.m. ,  put on one of  two  suits, a white shirt , and  one of four  neckties ,  each  a past Christmas  present  from Connie or  his married   sister , now living  in Michigan.   Breakfast was   a muffin—usually blueberry—and a cup of decaffeinated instant coffee. Bruce  had an aversion to cooking his own meals—caused by bad memories  of  army chow and  punishing  KP duty. After his heart attack years later, his doctor told  him that his   meal regimen of too many of those affordable  fast-foods  had likely caused the attack. 
            Bruce then  descended two  flights of stairs and  drove  his car out of a small  outdoor  parking lot across the street , often with  a worried thought about the cost  of a needed brake job for his 14-year-old Chevy .  In  ten minutes,  he would arrive at Sears. But in winter, because his  car once didn't start, forcing him to take a taxi,  Bruce now arrived  at the shopping center 90 minutes  early and  sat  in the car until the employee entrance  opened.   When I  questioned his excessive prudence, he calmly argued ,  " Bob , I wanted to make  sure I never would be late and never have to take a cab again.  "
After work  on payday,  Bruce went  to his favorite  shopping center cafĂ© for either  pasta   or his  hot beef sandwich on white bread  with  a side of  instant mashed potatoes, all  smothered with canned gravy . Arriving at his apartment building (or when leaving it in the morning),  Bruce used the backdoor to avoid encountering a woman tenant who, for unknown reasons , would hurl  insults at him on sight.  He thought her demented.  "If I saw her   a block away , I went around her . I just tried to avoid her.  She had once said I was lying to her when I told her about that lightning experience in the army.  I finally shouted at her, Leave me alone !  " Likely it was the first time in his adult life that Bruce had shouted in anger at a human being. When the  woman eventually moved  away,  Bruce said, "I felt sorry for her. " 
Keeping him company in evenings were a few hours of either  a  library-borrowed movie  from the 1940's  or  comedy television , particularly  I Love Lucy, Mash, The Nanny, or Hogan's Heroes .
On any of  his two days off, Bruce   might spend a few hours reading the Wall Street Journal at the public library  or taking the train (once a month ) to the Loop for   a corn beef-on-rye   at the renown German restaurant,  Berghoff's . This, and lunch in the Loop  every four months with a Polish immigrant friend of his who owned a small custom suit business,  were the only   luxuries Bruce could enjoy without going into debt. 

VIII    Some would say that Bruce had a few
               things in common with these three: 
                Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King
                Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi . 

       My first and late wife Judith and I had been living out-of-state for two  years,  and Bruce and I had lost touch until a conversation . H e had just returned from a two-day trip to Minnesota  for his sister  Elaine's funeral. She was the last of his immediate  family member and had  died at age 86 of a heart attack.  While telling me this on the  telephone, Bruce had  rare outburst of
emotion :  " I was never even warned ! "  Since many of our of soul-sharing conversations had been over coffee and a pastry ,  I suggested we meet e ww at a Caribou . At that time, Caribou  was my friend's  favorite  coffee spot ; its fireplace and knotty pine walls took him back to family days at  the Spider Lake resort  and to Frank, that convivial ,  nature-sage  resort owner of  Chippewa descent. 
As usual, Bruce insisted I choose where to sit. Bruce appeared to be in good health despite  his heart attack and angioplasty of    several years ago.    His face had  aged some ;  a few feint wrinkles  here and there, but  had remained  sculpted  with  transparent friendliness. His  eyes told me  no trespassing.  I reminded him that it was his turn to pray.  His prayer was brief , expressing gratitude for life itself and  asking blessings for my wife, Mary Alice.  I got the impression that Bruce wanted nothing that might diminish  his health or modest income . He had remained, I perceived, a man without a trace of duplicity . Of course, he was human , and  therefore   I wondered if a day of leisure or work had ever passed him when he could not resist a temptation to lie ,  or if  his pride was ever seriously wounded . Had my friend learned the art living simply and silently in the heart of a  disordered , drum-banging culture ? 
With its ambiance of rock music and  loud  ,  caffeinated  chatter , Caribou on this particular Saturday morning was not kind to our palaver, let alone prayer. Sooner of later, our coffee talk went to  Hollywood movies in the 1940's or the inflated  cost of living today .  Bruce delighted in reciting biographical data about his favorite actors such as his  favorite,  Gary Grant.  Our voices grew louder on the topic of what new cars cost in the 1950's ;   and  finally  we got philosophical about the very rich and famous  and how  they unwisely or wisely spent  their money—and how they died. Bruce  then  related  the time he found $l4 ,000 at  Sears . It was in a pouch  on the floor, dropped accidentally by  a cashier rushing to the security office. "It was anyone who wanted it, "  Bruce said, still irritated at the cashier's clumsiness.    "No one was in sight at the time ,  and the cashier would never recall where she had  dropped it. When I turned it in to security, they    grabbed the pouch  from me and  gave me a queer  look . I think they might have said 'thank you. ' " 
Bruce often was vexed about the  boldness of shoplifters at Sears . There was a thin woman who, before she was caught, had  walked out of a dressing room   wearing two layers of stolen dresses concealed under her own dress . And  there were "customers"  who switched their own shoes with those in a  shoe box.  Bruce found this disgusting.  When the topic of charity came up, it was a rare time I saw Bruce get angry. "I don't understand it," he said , laying aside a large Caribou  chocolate chip  cookie. "When  we give  change back to a customer and suggest they consider dropping just  a LITTLE of it  into this box on my  counter   to help our  veterans, they make the lamest excuses. "  Bruce rattled off the excuses. 
              We  leaned back and   drank the rest  of our coffee in silence. Eventually , I became  impatient with  the idle silence  and , giving in to  a journalist's curiosity,  asked:  "Doesn't anything ever really   upset  you , Bruce? I mean,  do you ever think about heaven or hell ?" 
Justifiably irritated for my presuming to much about the depth of  his faith, he shot back with:  "Look, I don't know much about where I'm going when I die. I'm just concerned about all the tragedy that's now in  the world. "  It sounded like a  plea .  I sensed  my friend had exposed a fear he had confronted, unwillingly , for the first time.  I became  embarrassed and retreated into  silence. My question , however, had  incited Bruce to say a few minutes  later,    "I wonder why God allows good people to suffer."
            " I don't really know ,"  I answered . "I've heard different explanations , but none satisfy me a hundred per cent. "  Glancing up at the ceiling, I said ,  " You know, Bruce, His ways are not our ways. "   Though I thought my  comment  appropriate , it echoed  back to me years  later as superficial  and lacking empathy for Bruce's unique spiritual trek.
    A few days later,  my wife and I had  Bruce over for dinner. Mary Alice asked him how his new boss was treating him .   Flashing a smile that lingered  for several seconds,  Bruce  was anxious to reply:"Well,   her name is Doris ,  and she's  maybe 28. A little assertive and doesn’t know how to say to her employees ,  ' Would you mind doing this?' or  'Why don't you…?'   But then she's  under a lot of pressure to turn things around in our department."
      Bruce always could find a kind word for  anyone, no matter how they treated him.  Over dessert , he had  more to say about Doris. 
     "Listen to this now: I come to work early one morning, set things up in  the stock room before I clock in. I didn't know there had been a mistake in the shift schedule and that I wasn't suppose to work  that day. My new boss comes in, sees me,  says she's really sorry for the mix-up and gives me a big hug. Can you imagine !   Then she says, 'We're going make it up to you with five  extra hours of work for you  next week . ' " 
Bruce badly needed  this overtime pay, and so  I clapped and Mary Alice , also  happy,  bit her lip.
      "I'm not finished, " Bruce said.  " You know that car brake job I've been putting off?  Two hundred bucks less than I thought !"  Simple  and  meticulous  ownership of his car sweetened his life.  
We escorted Bruce to the front porch.  I watched him walk into the night towards his  car. " He's wearing that same  plaid  shirt," I murmured  to my wife. " Be quiet, " she told me. 
Bruce's walk was  slower now , his back  slightly  hunched and his arms  dangling rather than swinging at his sides.  How ever does  his kind manage to  survive ?  I asked myself.  For the  first time I saw  nothing  ordinary about my  friend.  He was on a trek which, and   I had to know where it led.  

This completes the second of this four--part article.

 
All comments are welcome.
© 2016 Robert R. Schwarz