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(No) Man Is an Island

I have a memory burned into my mind of one of the last times I talked to my father – this was shortly after my parents’ separation after 25 years of marriage and just before God told him to kill me, my siblings, and my mom. We were standing in the nearly bare dining room of the house I grew up in, a room filled to overflowing with good memories from my childhood, memories of laughter and safe places and love. The only items in the room were my old stereo system that was left behind because it only worked half the time, sitting on the floor to my left, a cluttered desk in the corner across from me, and a folding table set up in the middle of the room, where the dining room table used to sit, piled high with several weeks worth of mail and old newspapers.

I was desperately searching for something to say, something that might make him reconsider his actions and attitudes, and I realized I didn’t have any memories of him ever having any close friends, no one who knew his secrets. And so I tried to ask him about it, and then blurted out a quote from John Donne, “No man is an island.” Caught off guard, he stammered for a moment, and then came out with, “Yes, yes he is.” And I was left with nothing else to say.

In the chapter “Presidents I Have Known,” in his new book The Yellow Leaves, Frederick Buechner writes about seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was a boy. “Even all these years later I can still remember the moment when the double doors of the elevator rumbled softly apart and there was Franklin D. Roosevelt framed in the wide opening. He was standing between two men, the taller of whom, my mother whispered, was one of his sons. Each of them had hold of him under one of his arms, and I could see that if they let go of him, he would crumple to the ground on legs as flimsy as the legs of the Sleepy Sam dolls in their seersucker pajamas that Jamie and I took to bed with us at night. He was the most important man in the Mayflower Hotel. He was the most important man in the world. But I could see with my own eyes that if he didn’t have those two men to help, he would be helpless.”

Buechner continues that story about Roosevelt a couple pages later, after writing about his father’s suicide when he was ten years old. “What I learned for the first time from that glimpse I had of him in the elevator is that even the mightiest among us can’t stand on our own. Unless we have someone to hold us, our flimsy legs buckle. My father made his way down the two flights of stairs as quietly as he could, [turned on the Chevy,] then sat on the running board and waited. When he was discovered an hour or so later that morning, he was crumbled over like Sleepy Sam.”

It’s hard – damn hard sometimes – to share who you are with those close to you, especially at the end of a long week, a hard month. It’s less work, or so we try to tell ourselves, to keep it bottled inside, to pretend we don’t have struggles or doubts or frustrations. To try and hide that there are times when it takes every ounce of strength we have to keep holding on to hope, to believe in something more. But the cost of hiding ourselves is too great, both to ourselves and to those around us. We must, for no less reason than the sake of our very souls, acknowledge that we cannot make it on our own.

So help us, God.


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