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Eulogy: my father

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Note: I gave this family remembrance in honor of my father Walter Schwaner at his funeral mass today in Lincoln, RI. 

“We have to follow the police officer,” my father told the family as he climbed back into the station wagon. It was the 1970s, we were on our way to Cape Cod, close to the Sagamore Bridge. Dad had been caught running a red light in the Friday afternoon traffic. The state trooper and my father talked for a long time outside the car while we sat anxiously inside.

The trooper pulled off the main road, and my father followed him. 

“Are you being arrested?” we asked him.

“No,” Dad said simply. A hint of a smile. “He’s going to show us a short-cut around this traffic.”

Skip ahead a few years. After Little League, where my father had coached my teams, I joined a Babe Ruth baseball team. I came home from one practice discouraged. The players had so little respect for the coach that the only thing they had done as a team was push his Volkswagen bug onto its side in the parking lot. Hearing this story over dinner, my father calmly said, “Huh. Maybe he needs a little help.” The next practice Dad was there, quietly standing by the bench and offering his assistance, and the mood of the team changed considerably. “Assistant Coach” Schwaner taught the kids how to sacrifice bunt, hit to the opposite field, steal a base, position fielders to help each other — and turned us unruly teens into a team. 

That’s Walter Schwaner. 

Nearly forty years later, on my last trip to Dad’s home on Cape Cod, I found myself taking photos for my wife of the many statues of Jesus of the Sacred Heart in my parent’s old bedroom.

My father built the house when I was a child and it has always been the family’s sacred ground to me; to my wife Mary, it’s a place of spiritual transformation. One day years ago she saw those statues on the dresser, the bookshelf, the sewing table and felt changed by their iconic open-hearted gestures. That June day also happened to be the Feast day of the Sacred Heart, and this idea of an open-hearted God has been central to her life since then.

If you’re here today you’ve probably been witness at some point or another to my father’s open-heartedness, his casual welcoming nature, his way of enabling others to do better, which is at the core of coaching, which he so loved to do.

For his open-heartedness, Dad was rewarded by a life surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him— family, neighbors, long-time and new-found friends. 

He didn’t preach the positive, he just accomplished it. The last word I heard Dad say? It was “yes.” In a crowded room discussing his fate, he spoke up above the doctors when I asked over the phone from Virginia if he wanted to leave transfusions and chemo behind so he could go home. He spelled it out loudly so I could hear– “Y. E. S.” 

That “yes” to death is not easy. Because the hard work of dying must be done by the dying. 

The hard work done by survivors is an important part of being alive. It is in fact the main fulcrum of a faithful life— our faith in God, our faith in each other, our faith that being human is living a realistic, generous love in all our relationships— these elemental values teeter on our response to the deaths of loved ones. These moments try us, but reward us in manifold complex ways.

A wise young poet once wrote:

When joy goes to work
Sadness must take care of you.

I’ll let the sadness take care of me for the time being, until joy gets back from work, just as my dad would get home from work to my childhood home and bring with him a sense of things being right, and calm, and me being permanently in good hands.

During my trip to the Cape weeks ago, I stopped at a used bookstore I’ve been visiting for five decades, and found a battered translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao de Ching, or Way of Life. A stanza of this ancient poem seemed to express that openness to vulnerability we see in Jesus of the Sacred Heart, and that was so elemental to my father’s life:

A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself
But is open to other people’s hearts:
I find good people good,
And I find bad people good
If I am good enough;
I trust men of their word,
And I trust liars
If I am true enough;
I feel the heart-beats of others
Above my own
If I am enough of a father,
Enough of a son.

It doesn’t strike me as odd that I found these words exactly when I would most understand them. It strikes me as enough. That like my father often did, I can look around me, even in sadness, and find more than enough for a good day, a good life, if I am open-hearted enough. 

This message can be found in the gospels. It can be found in Ecclesiastes. It can be found in the writings of Lao Tzu, and doubtless in many other texts of wisdom and faith. 

I learned it from my dad.

Walter S. Schwaner, Jr. 1933-2019

Night song

Night song

Your god is the back of a bluebird
Song of the inside of night’s clear lid

Your god is the thing before it’s seen
Color of waking from the dream

With an image cooling like lava
Into the shape of an empty hand

as full of air as the starling’s wing
Yet solid as the slow shore of dying

Your faith the driftwood to which I cling
Established proof of land if not direction

Broken map of the edge of each breath
And the way back to morning

*

Note: Last night my wife Mary was preparing for her first Sunday as a eucharistic minister, Pentecost Sunday being a fitting time to start such a journey. As someone who has long ago abandoned any sort of communal religious ritual, I nevertheless find that many of my closest friends are those that undertake spiritual paths whose directions seem authentic to me in a way I can’t quite register but can feel. This poem was a nod of respect and admiration for how others’ faiths often keep me afloat.

End of January

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End of January

No invitations left for it.
I am all outside now

Beyond any framework for this god of doors
Its first face is four years long

I am tired of looking through its road-salt eyes
The month’s mouth is a boy’s knee

Punctured by a splayed root
Its voice is a wrist shattered like ice

Its ears a bird caught in a basement
On the coldest night of the year

Its other face is a choice
Nobody saw coming

November hymnal (6) / Trench cello

November hymnal (6) / Trench cello

When the box was out of ammunition
someone now dead made a cello of it

and tuned it to the trenches as mud spilled
over the edges and they played elegies

for themselves in the space between concussions
listening for those who’d not hear their voices

again unless they were as lucky as that
ammunition box outliving its usefulness

and becoming song

Subtext

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Subtext

Unrecognized local number texting
‘Why did you change to “might come”

this weekend?’ I froze. Daydreaming
Of visiting my father on his 85th birthday.

Death’s number is always local, no
Matter how far away he seems.

And yes, he saw my mother fall,
Perforated inside, and went into the

Woods with eyes half seeing,
To the retired cop’s house for help.

And sometimes I see him there
Among the scrub oak, out

Of options, unsure, trying to lead
Death away from the house

And that was the time I came.

Carters Lake on A Last Summer Weekend.

People dispersing into the colors of sky and leaf. Crows exchanging fragments of thought. Who is in the world, and who is of it? I don’t want to quote the entire poem, so here it is. Thanks to Jessica Mock for allowing the reblog. //JS

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The amish people were in faded blues like a sky over an empty corn field at the end of summer when the harvest has left only dust and heat in the middle of no where.

The women had on hats and long dresses, boots laced up past their ankles. The girls walked almost along the edge of the water but they never touched it. They rippled away from the lake like little waves, becoming in themselves water, as if to remain separate from the external element itself. How strange it must feel to be in the world but not of it.

Fragments of blue dresses and sky disappear into the trees and I can hear an entire thirsty world wrestling against the breeze, not knowing where it is coming from but knowing where they are going.

After they are gone, the empty beach is a deserted cornfield. Crows fly in…

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Introduction to those beneath the flowers

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Introduction to those beneath the flowers

The ceiling fan on a May night
A watch that lost its hours

The year was a broken bone
And its slow mending

Like the peonies after being cut
To the ground rise up

And when no one is looking
Distracted by the growth and green

And the pink and white and red petals littering
The sidewalk and the heat

Rising suddenly they are there the praying
mantis and her thousand sisters

Each poised like a timeless statue
On a leaf that didn’t exist a month before