on the passage through life

LateAfternoonLightToday (at 11:45 am, to be precise), I turn 49.

If I were going to take my cues from the culture, I should be surrounding myself with black balloons and all sorts of birthday cards evoking nostalgia and/or grief. For all of the talk about being “forward-looking,” we sure spend a lot of time longing for the past.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years thinking about our passage through time… especially as both my father and the man I consider one of my primary spiritual fathers passed from this life to the next. Experiencing these deaths, and especially being present at the side of my father as he took his last breath, had an unexpected effect on me. Of course I expected the grief and sense of loss. But what surprised me was the way it stirred up a desire for the life to come, enkindled, I’m sure, by the fact that both men had pilgrim hearts: They took great joy in this life but never forgot that they were still on the way.

About a year before he died, my dad sent me an essay he’d written in college about Robert Frost’s After Apple Picking, which includes this passage:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

Dad enclosed a short note with the essay, very matter-of-fact, saying he found it among some old files he had been sorting through. He didn’t need to say anything more; the consummate teacher, he allowed his own peaceful – and I might hazard to say joyful – entry into the next life to interpret the poem for me. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy this life, but he had tasted something more and wasn’t going to stick with the hors’d ouerves when an entire banquet was being laid out before him. As C.S. Lewis once put it,

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Or in the words of Saint John of the Cross:

I will never lose myself
for that which the senses
can take in here,
nor for all the mind can hold,
no matter how lofty,
nor for grace or beauty,
but only for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.

Or as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets,

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass….

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

So I think my perspective on age is a bit different, a bit changed this year. If someone approaches me today and asks, “So how does it feel to be a year older?” I think I will respond, “The real question is: how does it feel to be a year closer to the life to come?”

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.


celebrating Mom

mom_letter_400wIn celebration of Mother’s Day, here’s an idea for a future Mother’s Day gift: a letter of memories and gratitude from all the kids.

About a decade ago, shortly after my Dad died, one of my sisters initiated a Christmas letter from my siblings to my mom, and it turned out to be a great way of honoring her. I think, with our Dad’s loss fresh in our minds, we realized that we didn’t want to wait until she was gone to send up some words of appreciation.

Here’s the idea as my sister presented it. She collected our letters, which were based on the following format:

  • Identify the top 2 things you like most about mom and why they’re meaningful to you. Add up to 3 more areas that you admire or like about her, (optional)
  • When you think of mom, you think of __________(from 2 words to 2 sentences)
  • Two important things that mom has taught you. (Can be more) This can be by her example as well, etc.
  • Most important gift mom has given you.
  • Favorite day, moment or memories with her (this is not limited but can expand as far as you’d like- beyond just one moment, day, experience too)
  • Funniest or silliest memory of her (laughable moment/s).
  • Your hopes, prayers or dreams for her now-what you would hope she will have/experience, related to her fulfillment.
  • (Optional) One thing she doesn’t know about you that you’d like to her to know (it can be anything, silly or serious-the point is sharing something here with her that she doesn’t know yet know about you or your life, that you’d like her to know).
  • Thanking her for … (Personal thanks for whatever comes to mind) (Some of these things may overlap but that’s fine).

A sampling of the responses from my nine brothers and sisters is posted here.

My own contribution:

The two things I most appreciate about Mom: her generosity and her receptivity. She defines what it means to be recklessly large-hearted, and fearless of the pain that might come from making herself so vulnerable. And by receptive I mean welcoming, not in any formal, dutiful way… but genuinely ready to open herself to whoever would present themselves to her. And then there’s her sense of humor, generally self-deprecating but always alive to the incongruities of life and all that is inherently silly… without caving in to the temptation of being ironic or sarcastic in any form.

Like last Christmas Eve, when she and I spent a good hour traversing back and forth across Clark Fork looking for the Holy Grail of plumbing: a toilet plunger for the overflowing facility at Sacred Heart.

lily of the valleyWhen I think of Mom, I think of lilies of the valley and sailboats, two things she’s fond of. Mom is like those delicate, fragrant flowers that change the whole aroma of the place without drawing attention to themselves, and like a sail open to wherever the Spirit might blow, and constantly tacking to see where the Wind might want to lead next. I think that’s how she taught me the value of discernment: testing everything, and keeping what is good.

Favorite memories include the lunches we shared together at the Burger King at Vine Hill and Highway 7, when I was in junior high school. I was just attending the junior high on a part-time basis, spending the rest of my time homeschooling. Generally, a bus would pick me up midday to take me to East Junior High. But from time to time, Mom would offer to drive me, so that we could have lunch together. It was just as the era of Home Covenant School ended, and during these undivided times shared with Mom, I felt I was getting to know her all over again.

My hope and prayer is that in this particular chapter in her life, she can look back with satisfaction on all of the artistry she has co-created — not the least the family she raised and nurtured with Dad — and look forward to all the new expressions of creative love that she has within her, waiting to be revealed in the days to come. She’s an artist of the human heart, with a canvas that has stretched as far as the eye can see… and a lot farther, I’m sure. There are realms of that canvas for her to revisit, and others to explore for the first time.

So I hope she’ll hop on her pontoon sailboat, so to speak, find the Wind like the expert sailor that she is, and set the course anew each day… touring that entire canvas, that whole work of art that is her life. It’s going to be a joy to watch.

stations of the cross hike on Good Friday

I’m planning to lead a Stations of the Cross hike at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights on Good Friday.

Given the discovery of the Heaven Can Wait aircraft last year on Good Friday, I thought it would be fitting to pray the stations of the cross near the grave site for Uncle John.

If you live in the Twin Cities and are able to attend, you are more than welcome to join me. Here are the details:

WHEN: Friday, April 19, 2019 – 1 pm

WHERE: Resurrection Cemetery, 2101 Lexington Avenue South, Mendota Heights, MN 55120 (meet at the Emmer family gravesite – click here for a map)

WHAT:  Praying the Stations of the Cross. Click here to download/print the prayers.

rest in peace, Mom & Dad

On April 17, 2014 (Holy Thursday that year), the ashes of Mom and Dad were laid to rest in a common grave at Resurrection Cemetery in Excelsior, Minnesota, just across the street from the home on Christmas Lake where they raised all ten of us. April 17 is my mom’s birthday; she died in 2013 on Holy Thursday, and her funeral Mass was celebrated on April 1, my dad’s birthday. Remembering them both with gratitude and love.

James & Mary Emmer

Wedding of James J Emmer & Mary Packard
Crystal, MN
September 2, 1950

James Joseph Emmer
April 1, 1929 – September 23, 2004

Mary Packard Emmer
April 17, 1928 – March 28, 2013

The ashes of both were laid to rest in a simple burial service:

April 17, 2014 – 10 am Central Time

Resurrection Cemetery
5555 Covington Road, Shorewood, MN 55331

Presider: Father Jim Livingston

To all of you who joined us in person, despite the snow:
our sincerest thanks!


Prior obituary notices:

James J. Emmer / Mary P. Emmer

Remembrances by the Emmer kids:

Dad / Mom


Related posts:

remembering Pops / celebrating Mom

on the passage through life / seven years

in gratitude for my dad / the Christian life: comfort by way of upset

another Unplanned encounter

I saw the movie Unplanned a second time, this time at the AMC in Eden Prairie.

Before going into the theater, I purchased seven tickets at the kiosk, and went over to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic, which is only a block away from the AMC in a strip mall.

Unlike the Burbank location, the Eden Prairie clinic allows people to walk in during business hours without having to buzz in through an intercom system.

Once inside, I had the following dialogue with the person sitting at reception.

Planned Parenthood Eden PrairieHi there. How can I help you?


Yeah, um, I wanted to talk to you about, um, the possibility of scheduling an appointment.

Yes, we could schedule that for you.


Could you write down here what you would like to schedule an appointment for?

She pushed a post-it note pad over the counter to me, with a pencil. I wrote down “possibility of scheduling an abortion” and gave the note pad back to her.

So, are you the patient then?


No? So, we would have to talk to the patient then.

Sure, OK, so the patient would need to come in.

Yes. So, do you want to tell them they can make an appointment by calling this number (She pulled out a business card an highlighting a phone number)… That’s our patient services line.

Ok, so that is the number they would call?



Um, it’s a little unusual… um… in that it would be my mom.

So, they would have to be speaking with the patient.

Right. Right.

To discuss the appointment.

Got it.

Yeah. So that would be the number that person would call.

OK. She’s no longer alive.

Uh… your mother?


So, I mean, she couldn’t call. But I know that when she was considering having me, she was thinking about an abortion, because I’m the youngest of ten, and they just didn’t have the resources. But, it was before Roe v Wade, so she didn’t really have that choice.

I suppose otherwise you could try … Casey Martin may be able to talk to you. (She passed me a second business card) So you could leave a voicemail on that one.

Ok. Ok.

She may be able to answer some questions for you as well.

OK. Alright. That’s good. So does she work out of this office … or he?

She does not. She works out of our, um, downtown office.

Oh, OK. All right. OK. Um… And just the last thing is, I’ve got these tickets for this movie, if anybody in your office is interested in seeing it. (I put seven movie tickets on the counter from the local AMC)

No, don’t worry about it. Yeah.

OK. It’s already paid for, so you wouldn’t have to be putting out any money…

Yeah, I can’t accept anything. I definitely hope you find someone who would definitely appreciate that.

OK, I’ll find somebody for them. Thank you.

Thank you so much.

So I left there and walked over to the Barnes and Noble in the mall. In the cafe, I found some students studying. I approached one young man who was studying a psychology textbook and offered him the tickets for the following evening, explaining that they were for the movie about Planned Parenthood and that the clinic staff at the neighboring clinic had not been interested when I had offered to give them away. He said that although there were seven members of his family, he could only use three of the tickets. I gave him three, then turned to the table behind him where four students were gathered together. They had heard my prior conversation, and so I simply asked them if they were interested in free tickets for the following evening to see the movie about Planned Parenthood. They were willing to take the remaining tickets.

Kudos to the young woman at the clinic who handled herself very graciously in a very odd situation. She must have been a bit confused by the nature of my inquiry. Of course, I have to admit being a bit thrown off by her responses too… especially when asked if I was the patient! But I guess, today, you just can’t assume anything…

And, just for the record, I have since confirmed with one of my siblings that when I was in utero, the doctors had recommended termination of the pregnancy due to concerns about my mom’s health and my viability. I don’t know if she gave the option serious consideration. But in any case, I firmly believe that she loved me; a lifetime of experience provides ample witness to me of that truth.

I’m reminded of a debate I once got into on Facebook about the existence of God and the problem of evil. In the course of the debate, someone asked me:

Name one thing that you (or anyone) thinks or knows that did not rely on empirical data.

I think that my parents loved me. I have evidence, but … no airtight proof, so to speak…. Evidence does not equal proof. I may see a roof over my head, may smell dinner in the oven, may feel my parents give me a hug, may hear affectionate words, may… taste a meal they have prepared… but none of it proves they love me. It could be possible that they provide all these things while being narcissists, and do not love me. (Think of some celebrities that have adopted children as accessories.) But I choose to believe that they love me. True, it might be reasonable to believe it, but the fact is that I could be wrong. It’s a choice I have made to believe it, requiring a leap of faith. Faith is a leap into the light, rather than into darkness…

After my dad died, I did come into possession of a journal entry that he had written sometime after Humanae Vitae was published, in which he was working out in his mind his own convictions about contraception and whether the Church’s position was correct, and I had the sense that it was not a matter of abstract consideration for him. I also know that my mom underwent a tubal ligation after I was born.

Providentially, everything finds resolution and peace in the just and merciful gaze of the Savior. To Him I entrust my parents, my family, anyone who has procured an abortion or has assisted in procuring one, as well as any who might be involved in such an act in the future. Most of all, I entrust myself to Him, as one most in need of His loving and forgiving gaze. Jesus, I trust in You.