"A Liturgy of the Hours"
Katherine M. Clarke
All kneel as they are able.
I’m awake early and lie curled on my side listening to NPR through earbuds on my iPhone. Snug under the polar blanket in the darkness, I'm happy not to get up yet. The metal tag tinkles on the dog’s collar as he stirs behind the exercise bike where he likes to sleep. My hip complains of pain and my bladder reminds me about the ginger ale I drank late last evening. I ignore them both. When the dog comes around to stare at me with a slipper in his mouth, I play possum until he wanders off to curl up and wait at the foot of the bed.
Peeking through the open slats of the blinds I wait for the light to reveal the palm trees. In New Hampshire we didn't need blinds and I watched for the sun to crest the mountain outside the window. I smile thinking of the snow piled up there now. Italian Roast drifts into the bedroom, set up by my beloved the night before to brew automatically in the morning. Unless I'm desperate to pee I never wake her if she's asleep.
Soon, Lily lays back the covers to get up soundlessly, never quite sure if I'm awake. She makes her way around the bed slowly in the dim light, feeling for the dog or slippers strewn in her path as she heads for the walk-in closet and reaches up to the hook for her blue morning sweatshirt. Struggling into it she turns, seeing my open eyes. We exchange a few murmured words: good morning, how did you sleep, wretched dog.
She goes to use the bathroom and when she comes back a few moments later, I roll onto my back and throw off the quilt. She bends down, turning her face slightly to the side, her cheek soft near mine, and slides her arm around my shoulders in a one-armed bear hug. Sometimes this embrace becomes a brief snuggle and often I kiss her cheek. Then she lifts me up to a sitting position.
I maneuver around to hang my legs over the side of the bed and my beloved kneels down on the carpet to put on my socks, shoes and braces. Depending how awake we are there's a bit of fumbling and both of us check that the shoes are on the correct feet, all straps fastened, laces safely tied. I stand up, with or without help depending on the day, grab up my crutches and take my turn in the bathroom before getting into the wheelchair.
Psalm for Ordination
The first time I see Lily on her knees is at her ordination to the diaconate, a step toward becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. I lean out around the end of the pew and find her, tall and erect, kneeling at the altar steps. She is wearing a long white gown called an alb, with a braided white rope tied loosely around the middle. The bishop, in scarlet chasuble and soaring mitre,stands waiting as the packed cathedral grows silent and still. The organ surges, the air vibrates and the choir begins to sing Veni Sancte Spiritus. As I hold Lily in my eyes, light begins to glow around her bowed head and the sanctuary behind her dims. I find myself trembling.
After breakfast, I sit down on the shower bench and Lily kneels again, this time on the green, foam rubber gardening pad that protects her knees on the tile floor. The dog wanders in and positions himself close to the proceedings. Lily steps over him or pauses to coax him out of her way. She's had a shower and her damp hair glistens as she bends toward my feet. I catch a whiff of fresh cotton and the grassy scent of her perfume.
Efficiently she removes my shoes, socks and braces, I swing my legs in, she closes the curtain and I take my shower sitting down. Afterwards I swing back out, still on the bench, she hands me a bath towel and dries my feet with a hand towel. Then she puts the socks, braces and shoes back on so I can stand up and move to the wheelchair.
Our own little dance of rinse and repeat.
The morning toilette is often when I get weepy if I've had a bad night and the pain is getting to me. Lily listens to my lament and consoles. She reminds me, “You're tired,” or “We didn't ice your shoulder yesterday”-- anything to help me remember this too will pass. I've read that people get inspired in the shower because they stop holding on and inspiration pops up. Letting go also works for releasing feelings. Fortunately ideas outnumber tears and our post-shower conversations on the bench frequently become animated discussions of my latest brilliant idea.
Two years after Lily is made a deacon, I move from Boston to San Francisco to take up a new position. For me it is a dream come true and I leave behind winter and tenure to strike out for California, land of sunshine and possibilities. Lily comes with me to help me get settled in my Sausalito apartment overlooking the bay. The plan is for her to return to her life back east where she has recently been ordained a priest and appointed to a plum job. We have been seeing each other for three years but I have been disentangling myself from another relationship much of that time and not ready to commit to a future together.
The day before she is to go home is unusually hot for July in San Francisco. Sun streams in the open balcony door. The bay below sparkles and the breeze smells of salt and seaweed. I step to the end of the kitchen counter, look around the corner into the living room and see Lily in khakis and polo shirt, kneeling on the carpet utterly absorbed in wrangling a cardboard box into submission. I watch her for a moment until she looks up and smiles. Her eyes shine like the Sausalito day.
I think: She's happy with me. Being with me makes her happy. I say: I don't want you to go home.
Psalm for Lent
The following spring Lily comes to live with me. In spite of the abundance of clergy seeking work in California, she is offered a job within months. After three years of discovering the real costs of living in San Francisco, we decide to move back east. I find a position in New Hampshire; we buy a house. For two years Lily searches for a church.
One way she copes with the highs and lows of searching is to look after the flower and vegetable gardens in the side yard. They have been let go by the previous owners and black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers run riot. Clumps of tall grass conceal peonies, bury irises and choke off raspberry canes, all of it invaded by ground cover meant to fill in around perennials. Weeds have taken over the entire plot of the vegetable garden.
Day after day I come home to find Lily on her hands and knees ripping stuff out of the strangled beds. She wears old sneakers, canvas work pants, and a long-sleeved t-shirt to keep the bugs off. Scents of grass, earth, sunscreen and insect repellent waft from her direction. Occasionally she stands up and stomps a shovel into the ground. One day I hear an alarming racket and look out to see her on one knee, chopping furiously at roots with a hatchet. Most of the time she kneels on the ground weeding, determined to restore order and clear ground for new growth. We are both overjoyed when she is asked to become rector of a church in a suburb of Boston.
For three years we live in two places at once. Each week, one or the other of us drives the seventy-five miles up and down from the rectory to our home in New Hampshire. I have a hip replaced and we get through it. Then, I contract pneumonia. I'm in the hospital for eight days and my sister takes a red-eye from LA. Lily leaves her parish and we buy our dream house at the foot of the mountain where we can always be in the same bed at night. Still, I worry I've caused Lily to leave the path she set herself on that day in the cathedral.
In the early evening I take the braces and shoes off to give my feet and ankles a rest. I try to time this to not interrupt Lily in the midst of practicing her guitar, feeding the dog or making dinner. She responds to my request for help cheerfully, or at least without any sign of resentment or distaste for the task. We’re fast. She kneels, I hike up my pant leg, she rips back the Velcro strap, gives the lace a sharp yank, and deftly pulls the shoe off with one hand while the brace falls into the other. She strips off the sock, hangs it over the brace, tucks the brace into the shoe and stands them neatly aside. Then she repeats the ritual with the other foot.
On a summer night in July the house shines and the gardens dance with blue asters and yellow daisies. A sparkling table is set, hydrangea and sunflowers gracing the center. Grilled chicken and a salad of wild rice and asparagus are nestled in the fridge. Bottles of bubbly chill on the bottom shelf. Three planes are landing at Logan Airport in Boston bearing my sister and two of my oldest and dearest friends. They are coming from the west coast and Florida to rendezvous, rent a car and make their way up to our home in New Hampshire. We will celebrate my sixtieth birthday.
Psalm for Advent
And then I fall. Walking into the bathroom to put on my earrings, my foot catches, and I go down hard, first to my knees and then flat on my face. My left arm is crushed under the steel of my crutch, the pain so intense I think: Oh God, it’s broken. I lie still for a moment, afraid to move, my heart pounding. In seconds Lily is kneeling beside me. I feel her hand on my back.
“I’m okay,” I whisper. To me, this means I haven't dislocated a hip. “I'm going to turn over.” I roll to my back and she helps me sit up. I try to move and bend my arm. I know if I can, it isn't broken. I straighten my elbow. “I’m okay,” I gasp. “You better get some ice.”
“You sure?” she asks. “Check your knees.” We pull up my pant legs and see blood seeping from my right knee, split open to the white of bone. “I’ll call 911,” she says. There is no way I can get up. After thirty long minutes, we discover that our bathroom can accommodate a police officer, three paramedics, two other adults and a firefighters’ carry chair, the dog disinvited.
Four hours later we get back from the Emergency Room with fifty-two stitches in my knee and my arm not broken, but massively bruised. Being New Hampshire, we've left the door unlocked. The guests have arrived, eschewed the champagne in favor of gin and tonic, and foraged in the fridge for dinner. There are hugs and tears all around. The pain pills mean no gin and tonic for me.
Not long after this fall, I begin to use the wheelchair more.
At the end of the evening, I watch Lily take a small pillow from the couch to cushion her knees as she kneels again. I am moved at seeing the top of her head, the swirl of her hair at the crown, as she bends over my feet. Slowly, she shakes out the long socks, fits them over my toes and smooths them up my legs. Next she fits the molded, black plastic brace to my foot, brings it to the back of my leg and fastens the wide Velcro strap that holds it on. She grabs a shoe, gives it a little toss to position it in her hand, and slides it on. She ties the laces securely and finishes with a two-handed pat on the final shoe as she sits back and gets up off her knees.
We do it all over again on the side of the bed as she helps me get settled for the night. And sometimes again at three or four a.m. Usually about eight times a day.
Each night when Lily climbs into bed beside me she punches her pillow into submission, settles the duvet just so and fiddles with her iPhone to tune in the late night radio that puts her to sleep. Then always, last thing, she turns and kisses me, touches my head and says, “Good night. I hope you sleep.”
When I wake up in the night I often worry. The progression of my disability has meant loss for Lily and me. Sometimes I feel guilty. I imagine that loving me has taken her away from the calling she cherished. I fear I've deprived the world of her gifts.
She gets mad at me when I say this. She tells me it is her choice, that she would not choose a life of misery and she will not be constructed as a victim of my disability.
This is our life -- her life and my life. A love that brings both of us to our knees.
Katherine M. Clarke began writing from personal experience after more than thirty years teaching pastoral care and counseling. She held several leadership positions in higher education and is a professor emerita of Antioch University New England. Accustomed to understanding and representing the perspective of others, she is now delighted to be able to speak for herself. Katherine makes her home in Sarasota, FL and writes happily in the sunshine.