Votary of Nature

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A lack of time continues to creep up on me and this is a now or never post so I hope it ends up making sense.  In my last blog, I said I’d be writing about God and religion with the caveat that there would be no preaching, soapboxes, or soul saving. 

Given the enormity of these topics and the limited discussion of them with Hook, I wanted to share because you’ve been with us on this journey from the beginning.  You’re as much a part of this story as we are, at least that’s how it’s felt to me.

What is Votary of Nature?

Votary of Nature, in addition to being the title of this blog, is also the beginning of a haunting poem Hook chose to have read at our wedding.  (I chose Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 — not a predictable reading for a wedding either but not as evocative as Hook’s choice.)  As beautiful as I found the poem, I didn’t completely understand the honor of the words written at least not until these past couple of months.  Votary of Nature was etched on the tombstone of Thomas Say, an American Naturalist, considered the father of entomology in North America.   I’m not sure if Say wrote the poem or if it was written for him but it goes like this:

Votary of nature even from a child,
he sought her presence in the trackless wild

To him the shell, the insect, and the flower,
were bright and cherished emblems
of her power

In her he saw a spirit all divine,
and worshipped like a pilgrim
at her shrine

Before Votary of Nature

It was not an easy decision for me to marry a non-Catholic, someone I used to joke was a closet atheist but is probably more an out-of-the-closet agnostic.  But if labels and categories were based on how a person acts, then by most behavioral requirements of common religions, Hook would be considered a Christian.

I take my Catholicism seriously or as seriously as a consistent sinner like me can.  I am as drawn to my religious beliefs as I am frustrated by the organization of them.  I’ve been baptized, made my first communion, been confirmed all in the Catholic Church.  Although I do not always agree with the man-made hurdles of religions in general, I appreciate the desire for structure, the insistence of practicing the faith.  Some traditions I honor without thought, others begrudgingly so; regardless, I believe. I choose to believe without all the hard data.  But, I do not believe that anyone who is not of the Catholic persuasion or has never been baptized, communioned, confirmed, wetted down with holy water, ashed on the forehead with black smoot, or has stuck a wafer to the roof of their mouth to chew on later, said ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers, is any less likely to make their way into heaven than someone like me.  I need the ashes and the water and the wafers.  I need all the help I can get.

Forget what a man says and watch what he does.

Have you ever heard this saying before?  I’ve attributed this quote to my father, Lou, but I’ve always wondered if someone famous said it first.  Doesn’t it seem too obvious, too of course, for some philosopher not to have graced an audience with these words centuries before?  This saying stuck with me the entire time I was dating Allan.  It has been the perfect barometer for measuring the sincerity of a person, and it was with this benchmark of words that I watched what Allan did and forgot what he said.  Choosing to marry Hook was easy.  He may not have professed an allegiance to any religion (or even if God exists at all), but what he calls himself or how he has spent his Sunday mornings has been significantly less important than how he has treated others, how he has treated me. 

Until May of this year, I bowed to this wisdom.  Then Allan became terminal and I temporarily lost my mind.

Hook the Scientist

Organized religion and God and all the history and feeling that are wrapped up in these words are not topics even the best of friends might discuss.  They’re not subjects I’ve completely reconciled with myself as an individual let alone as a wife.  For the last 90 days, religion has been a trapped, solitary wasp in the Hook house, flying overhead, demanding to be released.   Once the final diagnosis of two to three months was made, I got scared for Hook thinking he was going to die never admitting that God might exist.  It wasn’t that Hook said, ‘God doesn’t exist.’  His position has been that he doesn’t know what, if anything, exists outside of what has been proven by data — the stance of a true scientist.  Something may or may not be — what does the research show?

Then several months ago, two of our loved ones, one on Hook’s side of the family and one on mine, coincidentally gifted us the same book, Proof of Heaven.  (A third person tried to loan the exact book just last week and I quietly declined.)  It was written by a scientist who professed a belief only in that which could be studied and validated with data.  The author, an M.D., had a near death experience and as a result wanted to share with the world that science alone cannot explain the mysteries of the universe.  That’s the short version. 

Out of concern for Hook, our loved ones wanted him to read this book.  For weeks, I pestered him about reading the book, placing one of them on his nightstand while the other sat on mine.  Sometimes he would pick up the book and pretend to read, but I knew it wasn’t something that held his interest.  With all that must have been going through his mind and all that he had to bear, Hook said nothing as I tried to shove religion and spirituality and a higher power down his throat. These were not the actions of someone who was supposed to love and care for him through his last days. But I was afraid.  I was afraid that somehow I was letting him down or letting God down or letting myself down, because I believed I was now tasked with getting Hook to acknowledge Jesus Christ while he was still lucid enough to do so. 

I honestly do not know what I thought would happen.  Except, asking Hook to read a book like that or reading it to him would be the closest thing to torture I could ever inflict on my entomologist.   I struggled with what to do:  Read, don’t read; Ask him to read, leave him alone.

When I found myself in that scared straight place of thinking I was failing badly as a fake Catholic wife (because let’s be honest – what could God have possibly been thinking to pair Hook with such a demented disciple like me?), I turned to the one place that holds comfort and wisdom for me, the one place that regardless of my rebellious religion misgivings, I still trust:  the Church.  I spilled my anguish out to a priest and asked for guidance on how to resolve the, Save Hook’s Soul dilemma.   This is the response I received via email:

If Hook is as close to nature as I think he is, then he has experienced more of God’s tiny glories than you and I ever will. Don’t worry about his “professing it”. Our God – the God of Jesus – does not require confession. He only asks love of us. Did Hook love? Then he has known the God of love, the God of Jesus Christ.

What Hook clearly doesn’t believe in is the “god” that has been presented to him by religion in this day and age. And that’s not his fault or my fault or your fault. It just is. But it’s got nothing to do with his salvation or with his being welcomed into the arms of the One who made him, along with the rest of the amazing creation that Hook has spent his life crawling around in.

Job 12:7-10. “Now ask the beasts to teach you, and the birds to tell you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this?…”

Hook has had some very good teachers about the hand of God. Who are we to say that he has not been listening?

Hook the Man

Reading the priest’s response brought on waves of gut-wrenching tears while at the same time lifting an enormous burden from my heart.  I was asking my husband to be inauthentic about who he was, has always been.  I was asking him to say words he did not mean, to announce something he did not believe.   But even all of that is not what snapped me back to a place of reasonableness and sanity and acceptance.  My reaction to the priest’s response was, in addition to relief, that of shame because in my overwhelming fear, I’d dismissed some validated data about my husband:

To say that Hook is a kind man is to remark that the sky is blue.  It is obvious, consistent, natural.  It’s not something he thinks about or has to focus effort to do.  It’s a way of being for him.  But his kindness goes deeper than that.  He’s a man who never seems to hold a grudge.  When he’s been wronged, he shrugs it off.  When he gets frustrated or ornery, his annoyance comes not from the person he’s interacting with but is born from the desire to do the right thing.  He is loyal, too, even when it’s obvious another may not be, even then he does not sacrifice that person or the relationship.

This doesn’t mean Hook is perfect.  He is not.  Oh boy, Hook is so not perfect.  Still, he’s inclusive rather than exclusive of those different than him even when he doesn’t understand them.  He’s a man who takes care with children and the elderly (I’m not making this up) treating both with a tenderness that seems to take others by surprise.  Allan is a man who is almost incapable of telling a lie.  He can tell small ones like saying that he wants to do something with me when really, he’d rather poke his own eyes out.  But if he fibs, he will eventually tell on himself with an indignant, “I can’t lie.  I’m an Eagle Scout!”  

Hook is someone who is, quite simply, joyful.  It would not be unusual for him to wake up singing on any given morning.  True, sometimes they were naughty songs (he will be a juvenile till the end) but who wakes up singing on a Monday morning?  Who wakes up singing on a Monday morning with terminal cancer and the end of their life near?   I hear his cracked voice, almost inaudible, through the audio monitors in his room, “My baby’s red hot, the other babies ain’t doodlely squat.”  He’s a gentleman while being a scoundrel, a jokster with the guys but the crabby professor in a classroom who’s kind of dorky but hippy and cool at the same time.  A man who would risk his own safety by driving his Jeep to the grocery store (only three weeks ago!!!) so he could surprise his wife with fresh cut flowers.  “I wanted my baby to have flowers,” he said.  (Imagine not my surprise but my horror when I realized he was out driving around.  For exactly ten minutes of my life, I alternated prayers of please-don’t-let-him-hurt-himself with please-don’t-let-him-hit-anyone.)     

And all of this, the total of Allan’s character, is embodied by the most endearing quality of all — his childlike approach to nature.  This appreciation for that which exists in the outdoors or all living things is to me quite magnificent.  Actually, Hook’s not into all living things – there are some Homo sapiens he would do without.  Still, he has a reverence for the history and future of nature, a constant inquisitiveness, a keen sense of observation as he explores and discovers with his eyes and ears, the life surrounding him.  It’s educational to watch him absorb his natural environment.  Even just sitting in a Texas backyard, Allan sees and hears all that is alive.  I used to think he had exceptional hearing but remembered how sometimes he had to ask me to repeat something or would lean in to hear.  I knew he didn’t have the best eyesight even with eyeglasses, but when we sit outside on the uncovered deck in the mornings, he’d point out birds or insects or changes in vegetation that my eyes or ears did not catch. 

This gruff, cigarette-smoking, lap swimming, solitary wasp loving, dirty song singing, crazy fishing hippy is more than just an entomologist, a hymenopterist.  He is a worshipper at the foot of Mother Nature.

I need to stop, because I am overdosing on Hook right now.  I’m writing all of this because he’s going to die.  He’s going to die, and there is nothing I can do about it except this one thing: Allow him to die the way that he lived. 

Hook is a blessed (my word not his) man.  He has said over and over again that he has no regrets, no last wishes, that he is satisfied with the life he has led.  From my view in the sofa chair next to his hospital bed in our home, I see that my husband has accomplished what most only hope to do.  He has lived the life God intended for him, to the best of his abilities, all the while treating others as he would like to be treated, forgiving selflessly regardless if you wronged him once, twice, or forty times.  The face that my old, ornery, obscene man shows the world is a face God already knows.

I look to my husband as a benchmark (minus the obscene) for how to live life completely, how to honor the gifts graced to us, how to nurture these and one another in a way that leaves a lasting mark on earth.  If I could act – be – half as good as Allan, I might just have a shot at heaven, the eternal glory I know in my heart to exist.  And if heaven truly does exist, then Hook will be on the fast track to it when he takes his last breath.  This I know the same as I know Jesus waits for us all.  And there you have it — my lying, cheating ways because I am preaching and from a high soap box, and there will be one soul saved but not the one you think.

When we married, some people thought maybe this Catholic girl was going to open Hook’s mind to a higher power, that perhaps I was going to help him redeem his soul.  But Allan’s votary of nature is more than enough for him and more than enough for God.   It has taken my husband’s illness, his inevitable death and my rapid-paced train of daily memories reflecting on his life to realize:  It was never going to be me who saved Allan.  It has always been Allan who’s been saving me.

Forget what a man says and watch what he does. 

Lou was so wise, and I am still learning.

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