Posted by: Peadar Ban | November 24, 2015





My brother Tom and I

This is a story about my big brother Tom (Thomas Francis Edmund Gallaher), and my little sister Stephanie Ann Teresa, and me; and about my brother dying.
My brother died on September 30, 2015.
My sister and I had visited him at his home in Healdsburg, CA, for several days two weeks before. I write about what I remember of that time and the weeks leading up to it, and even at this close remove, my memory may not track the events, or include them, as they occurred.
But, it is my memory, after all, and the truth of the things I tell is truly that. What I write is worth writing, worth telling, worth remembering. What I don’t write, isn’t.

What I Learned on the Phone

I knew my brother Tom had prostate cancer. I remember the telephone call from him a decade or more before when he told me that, and our conversation; the usual one it seems everyone has about prostate cancer. “There’s nothing to worry about that,” I probably said. “You’ll probably die of old age before you die of prostate cancer.” We weren’t worried we told each other. I think I even forgot that he had prostate cancer.
That isn’t too hard a thing for me to do, either. I can forget that my feet end in toes.
It was sometime in July or August of this year (2015) when the phone rang in my house. It was Tom on the phone. “Hello,” he said in a business like way. This, I knew, was going to be a different kind of call from my brother. Most of our conversations, the vast majority of them, have been lighthearted talks about nothing, really . We would fill the time with what might be called “banter”; a weird variety of the form where we become other people, chattering nonsensically, making fun of ourselves and everything else under the sun, until one or the other of us noticed “someone coming up the walk” and the call ended.
I have tried to remember the number of times Tom called me on a serious matter. I can’t really remember making more than three or four myself; and think of the same being true for him. I suppose some might find that odd, but in a way, Tom and I never grew up on each other. We were still the boys we had always been, still the teenagers, and the world the two of us inhabited still the world whose center was the little apartment on Bailey Avenue in the Bronx – the place, messy as it was – called home.
Well, this time he called to tell me something far from home. He had decided not to continue with any more treatments for his cancer, which had metastasized about a year ago. Had he told me that? I cannot remember, and did not then remember. Nevertheless, it now proved resistant to all treatments. His doctor in San Francisco , one of the best in the country for this disease, held out a slim hope that Tom might qualify for an experimental therapy. That would mean another evaluation of his condition after treatment ceased for a while. He would stop, and wait. Even if he did qualify, he said, he wasn’t sure if he would try. What use was it, he said, to endure such pain and difficulty for months to reap at the most six or so months more of life, weakened and half crippled by his treatments. Perhaps, he said, it was better to die from the disease, that live half dead from its cure.
The promise of the experimental treatment for his disease was, he reasoned, a mixed blessing. He wondered aloud whether it would be worth the effort. If it was advice he sought, I could not give it. It was an effort I had witnessed in the trying once before, and witnessed its abandonment, too, when all the risks and difficulties were considered.
With my brother sounding like some character in a film or novel trying to decide if he should row across the ocean, or walk across the desert with nothing more than a good attitude and a ham sandwich, to bring back a rescue party for the rest of his stranded and desperate party; and me sounding like those hope filled few, we said goodbye. We were, after all, still the same. Distance, years and disease had changed neither him nor me. I was smiling when I said goodbye and had the strong feeling that he was too. Before the last goodbye had been said, he asked me not to call our sister, Stephanie. He would call her with the news.
I said I wouldn’t, feeling sure that she would call me soon after her conversation with him. Years ago I read an article somewhere describing what wonderful consolation sisters are for bothers as they age. Old men, the article told, do better as their lives wind down for having a sister or two on the scene to watch and worry over them. She would call, I was sure. I wasn’t wrong in thinking so.


I sat quietly for a while after the call ended. I sat in that part of our home we’ve named the oratory. Sat in the same chair I always sit in when Mariellen and I pray; the same chair I lived in during the last year of Sheila’s life, the year I call an “acid bath”. It is a year of wonderful and terrible memories, the year I learned the truth about love. Ahh, but that’s a story for another time.
A little bit, though, might help to explain my own frame of mind after The Call.
Trying to imagine my brother now, knowing the disease was going to win, and sooner than later, I wondered was he reacting as had Sheila when she made the same decision he’d made. On the way home after she’d told Dr. Baker, her oncologist, that she was ending all treatment of the disease, she wanted to find a nice place to eat. She looked and sounded relieved. She’d asked me in front of the doctor how I felt about her decision, and the only answer I could give was that I did not have cancer. And so, we found a nice place to eat. Finding a nice place to eat was exactly what we had done on the day we got married. Thus we began taking leave of our long life together and our dreams of golden years and sunsets.
I felt somewhat the same as I did then, and through the long months that followed; as if I was walking quietly from the room and closing the door. Now, I thought, I would have the pictures and the memories.

Stephanie and Plans

Stephanie called me a day or so later to ask if I’d heard from our brother, to find out what I thought. We talked about trying to go out to California at some point, vague plans. She had lost her husband to cancer; his death much swifter than Sheila’s fourteen year long journey from original diagnosis. And she wanted to know whether a trip now, or later, was the proper thing to do. When might I go? To be frank, I had hopes that Tom would travel East, and spend some time with family back here, and hadn’t begun to think of going to him.
But he was still strong, we reasoned, so we still had time. We decided to wait. But, while we waited, we both kept in closer touch with him…and he with us…and with each other; exchanging impressions of the state of things. “Tom sounded just like his old self today,” we would say. Or, “He sounded stronger.” Meanwhile, the disease progressed, despite the sound of our brother’s voice. We should have known that we were hoping in vain, dreaming of Christmas that would never come.
Toward the end of August things with Tom got worse. His doctors told him he wasn’t eligible for the experimental treatment. Personalizing the disease, as often happens, I remember him saying that he thought the cancer knew every detail of his condition, and of its strengthened position against him. All the usual things happened with their usual ferocity and terrible frequency; ground was lost, cities fell and casualties…well at some point, one simply counts them no more. What is the use? Stephanie and I had been there and from a distance could see clearly. Her memory being better than mine, she could see much more clearly. That was a blessing for me.
In any event we both saw that need to go to Tom would come sooner rather than later. Mariellen made reservations for my travel in mid-September and gave my schedule to Stephanie who made reservations from New York on the same day. She would meet me in San Francisco and we would travel together to see our brother. Now, the only worry was whether we had waited too long; would the disease wait three or four weeks was a worry I didn’t need, but a cause for prayer. There are silver linings, I suppose.
Our calls to Tom were more frequent and many of those were frustrated. He was sleeping longer and more often each day. The three hour time difference itself was something I never could deal with effectively, and kept me from more than one call. But, when we spoke, together, it was within the frame of our usual nonsense. Except for occasional weakness in his voice, sometimes little more than a hoarse rasping whisper, and the rare description of the latest milestone in his Long March, we might have been at home a million years ago.
I couldn’t dispel the worry, though, that it all might be in vain; that he would die before we even left to go to see him. I should have remembered my own experience with Sheila, remembered a truth well known. We can endure a lot more than we think we are able to for something we think is important. And even as implacable a foe as cancer can be resisted…perhaps defeated…in certain instances. On the day she died Sheila rallied and held on until her children came to her. Only then did she begin to let herself go, well prepared for the journey in every way possible. Some of that memory percolating through my mind had its effect in a fruitful way I could not then foresee. But, it was a seed planted in fertile ground I guess and lovingly tended by unseen hands.

The Long Journey 

Stephanie and I spent several hours, it seems, over the course of the next week or two coordinating our flights from New York and Boston so that we would arrive close to the same time in San Francisco. Mariellen, my travel agent among her many other duties here, and Stephanie’s daughter Jennifer, from Portland, OR, made all the necessary reservations for flights, with Mariellen additionally arranging for a car and hotel at our destination. Since Stephanie’s flight was going to get her there earlier than mine, she reassured me that she’d be waiting for me at the gate when I got off the plane.
I thought of telling her that I had flown across the country once or twice before, but, I enjoyed being “sistered” too much to deprive her of the opportunity, and myself the luxury. In the meantime, as the day approached I acted on my impulse of a few days before. Consulting on it with Mariellen, I sought the advice of some people she suggested I see, people who would know how to go about bringing this seed of an idea to fruition, or as close as possible to a good end; leaving the rest in God’s hands.
Having done what I could, then, she assured me that God’s hands would be sufficient to the need.
I was at the airport about three hours before flight time, expecting to stand in line and take off most of my clothing, be x-rayed, probed, poked and annoyed and then drag myself through several miles of carpeted corridors before waiting impatiently for my flight with a crowd of other hurried, grumpy and variously bothered and bored people I would never see again. Instead, I found myself waiting most of the three hours at the “gate” for the flight to be called. Something must have happened. Whatever it was, I gave thanks; even for the wait.
Flying is mostly sitting and waiting on a different level, in a too small chair; and then wandering half lost and usually late in a strange place. I was used to it. But, Stephanie, Lord love her, made this bit different in a way I could never imagine. I had left the gate, luggage in hand and stopped off at a “comfort station” to attend to business. Returning to the broad shop filed concourse with the broken moveable walk I began to slog once more to the main terminal when I heard myself being paged, and commanded to pick up the nearest courtesy phone. I would have done so, gladly, but could find not a one; nor could any of the variously uniformed employees tell me where one might be found. I decided to ignore the call, whomever it might have been from.
Several minutes later, I reached the terminal and found my sister awaiting me, grinning like the Cheshire Cat, arms held wide in an anticipated embrace. Summoning my best smile from some reserve of good feeling, I greeted her and listened to her tell me all about her own journey so far. When she asked if I had heard the page, I replied I had, and listened to her tell me more; her idea of a reassuring message. I had had visions of ambulances and desperate medics. We made for the shuttle trains then, and the short ride to the car rental center; short in distance, incredibly long and boring in time spent getting there. Getting there in order to wait for an hour and a half for the car we were renting before entering auto combat in San Francisco’s abominable traffic. Enough of that! We were on the ground and on our way.


Three hours after landing at San Francisco we arrived in mid-afternoon in Healdsburg, a mere fifty miles or so north, checked into our hotel and drove to our brother’s house where we met him at about 3:00PM.
Weak, wheel chair bound, scare-crow thin, gray complexioned, with a few wild wisps of white hair barely covering his scalp our brother greeted us with his trademarked slight wry smile, and the remark to me, “Your hair looks great!” To which I answered, “Yours does too.” His smile broadened. He was, despite the obvious disguise cancer had put on him, still Tom, our brother whose eyes twinkled and mind was still clear. And we became the three we had been beyond the years between our youth and that meeting moment in the small house nestled against the round hills full of grape heavy vines.
It’s not necessary here, I think, to go into details, but this much I’ll say. My brother’s approaching death was a thing neither to be hated nor feared, and the vessel cancer carrying him to that destination seemed in the circumstance, and making allowances for it, to be as good as any for the purpose. I was thankful for modern medicine and the “travel aids” it provided him. He was alert and pain free, and while I knew the energy it cost him to visit with us, still I was grateful for it and his generosity with it, a real gift, and the ability it provided him, the window it opened for us all to be companions once more. This one last time.
Several weeks before as reports from him alerted us to the progress of his disease, I’d wondered about by brother’s life after death, then become a looming certainty. Tom and his childhood faith had come to a parting of the ways years before. I had no idea now what he believed or what he practiced. But, I was pretty sure he hadn’t seen a Catholic priest except to pass one by in the street, nor been inside a Catholic church for any reason other than to “look around”. I wondered, too, about my obligations to him, my duties to my brother in this new to me situation. This was the “seed” I was tending; or that was being tended carefully for me.
Following Mariellen’s advice to speak to a priest back home about my “problem” with my brother, I did just that. In fact I went her one better and spoke to two. From them both I learned what to do; get in touch with a priest out there, a priest nearby, and explain to him the situation and my concerns about it; and leave the rest to God.
And so, I placed a call to the Chancery of the Diocese of Santa Rosa in which Healdsburg was located. As I was telling the nice lady in California who I was and what I needed, she interrupted me to say that the pastor of St. John’s in Healdsburg was just going by her desk that moment. Would I like to speak directly to him, she wondered? It was the first of two incidents which have convinced me that The Gardener was busy tending the seed,; had, in fact, planted it.
I spoke with Father Sean Rogers who listened and perfectly understood what I needed him to do. Of course, he said, he could visit my brother and his words and the tone he took made me understand he was no stranger to the project. He would approach the whole situation with tact, deference, gentleness and kindness; above all kindness. He told me to tell Tom that I knew a priest who would visit him any time he wished and to leave the decision up to him. Then Father Sean gave me his own phone number and said he’d wait for my call.
The call and conversation with Father Rogers was a relief. It was a confirmation, too, that I’d done something that needed doing. Now, I had to figure out how and when to mention this to my brother.
I should have remembered my sister. During the drive to Healdsburg after we had gotten away from the traffic, Stephanie and I settled down sort of into a running commentary on the drought blasted countryside, and fires and other things peculiarly Californian. In our family fashion, we even discussed taking Tom our during the grape harvest to go Wine Picking, understanding, of course, the long practice wineries there have of hanging bottles of the latest vintage on the vines so they could be picked by thirsty connoisseurs. Of course we spoke of what we were there for; of what the next few days would bring, and how we would respond. She mentioned a set of rosary beads she’d brought with her to give to Tom, and I mentioned a prayer shawl, like the one I had gotten from the Parish back home, knitted by the same woman who had knitted my own. I also told her about my conversation with Father Rogers about Tom. Fade to black as they say in Hollywood…
One of the first things Stephanie did when we met Tom was give him the Rosary she’d brought from home, the one her grandchildren had placed with great affection and devotion on her dog’s grave out in the backyard. And then, she surprised me by telling Tom that I knew of a priest nearby if he wanted to receive the last Rites. Our brother simply nodded and pursed his lips, looking over at me in a way I’d often seen him before, a wondering, considering glance. After a pause of some seconds he said, “I’ll let you know.” I said a silent prayer, and passed on to other things.
Sitting there in his wheelchair, looking like someone who had just finished the Bataan Death March, he was the same fellow I had grown up with; spending my first seventeen years as his roommate. He was at ease, and so were we, sitting in his little kitchen being nothing but the three of us. I kept thinking though of others possibly present, unseen and silent, watching us and waiting for him; our parents, aunt and uncles, and perhaps another whole host of other relatives gone before even them. Not for the first time in the past few weeks I found myself while not quite envying Tom, yet more than a little curious, wondering about, hoping for and in a way wanting, but not just yet, what was coming soon to him.
Tom went to sleep at about 10:00pm. He did that all three nights we were there. Stephanie and I sat talking quietly about the day just passed and what was to come. We both agreed he was ready to die, and we were ready to let him go. It was a much easier thing to do than I had thought possible.
He had asked me earlier in the evening how much longer I thought he would live. I answered honestly that I had no idea; but that it could be two weeks or he could see his next birthday on November 12. He had seemed more than ready when he answered my birthday comment with, “I hope not.” But that wasn’t really part of our conversation. Chiefly we wondered what we could do to make his life a bit more easy; what was left of it. Tom had always been a neat orderly and clean fellow. Those were not the circumstances we found him in. And, so, we set about to see how we might improve conditions a bit to make what time he had left in the place he lived more comfortable and livable.
I left Stephanie with Tom that night and drove back to the hotel, the air heavy with smoke from the many forest fires, the news full of stories about damage and evacuations.
As I closed the door to Tom’s house, my sister was already at the kitchen sink doing the dishes.

Morning Was Smoking

A curtain of smoke colored the morning gray, and the place smelled like a dead fireplace. The parking lot was filled with huge muscular trucks and the coffee shop across the street with huge muscular men on their way over the hills to the east to fight the fire, the Valley Fire it was called, that was eating its way closer. I got my sister a coffee, entered my rental car, a Tinker Toy next to the others, and drove off wondering if we should think about how and where to move Tom if worse came to worse. Stephanie was already awake and cleaning while Tom slept on, undisturbed. She’d slept well, she said, on the air mattressed bed in the next room. We chatted over coffee and tea, and she put me to work sweeping and cleaning while she blasted clean the dishes in the sink, and condemned a number of rather ripe vegetables and other life forms to ignominious deaths in the compost heap outside; a duty that she thought I would enjoy executing. It was to be our routine for the next two days.
While waiting for our brother to join us, of course we talked about him; remembering him as he was and who he was to us, and comparing those impressions to the one he made on us now. Stephanie wept, not as strongly as she had the night before when she walked outside to say goodbye before I drove away, but still… For myself, I was simply happy to see him, to touch and hear him, and to love him, a sentiment I had no doubt Stephanie shared for him, and that he felt for us.
We weren’t, of course beyond showing our “unredeemed” selves either during our time together. These little things don’t matter in the larger narrative, though; momentary annoyances, like summer showers, are over before they happen, it seems, and forgotten as soon. We were three old friends, old companions keeping watch in the small house, alone and happy in the pleasure of each other’s company at the end.
Others entered and left from time to time, of course. That afternoon Tom’s landlady stopped in with the mail. She and her husband, a big man, good with his hands and good with his brains, too, a professor at a nearby college, lived in the large house a few dozen yards behind Tom’s cottage. She brought the mail up from the mailbox down at the road’s edge, and Tom did the honors. We sat and talked for almost a half hour. I could see that he’d charmed the two of them over the years. Of course, I’ve found that folks in that part of the world are easily charmed, not as easy as Texans, perhaps, but ready to believe the best of whomever they meet. Often to their detriment and the rest of the country’s, too. I remember Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement, The Summer of Love in the Haight.
Outside on the drive after she had taken her leave, we spoke for a few minutes, walking slowly towards her own place, stopping from time to time. She was curious about the three of us; a natural thing I suppose, wondering about Stephanie and me, and the relationship among us. Perhaps she had expected a more solemn pair of siblings, a sadder one, and a cup of tears instead of the cup of tea and laughter, along with the stories, that we shared freely. I troubled to tell her that there was indeed a serious side to us, but it is not the usual reaction we have to such things; with most things in fact. Then she told me that she had cancer, too. It was in remission, now, she said, but she knew well enough that it could reappear at any time.
As we walked and talked, I wondered if my brother’s illness had in some way helped her in her struggle. Then, she told me that it did. In so many words she said that she’d found in Tom both a companion and a guide on her journey.
She went back up the drive to her place and I returned to Tom and Steph. But, not before hearing her tell me she thought we, my sister and I, were extraordinary for coming out here on this “mission”. I knew her to be using the word not in its military sense.
Inside the cottage Steph was busy cleaning and removing clutter. She interrupted her bustling about to tell me of an idea she’d had. When her husband Frank was ill, the only things he could tolerate were baby pears and some of the juices sold for infants. I turned to my brother sitting there silently and asked him if he’d like to try her suggestion. He brightened at the idea, and our sister, ever the caretaker of her two boys, made a couple of more suggestions for the palate. Tom gave me directions to a Wal-Mart store in the next town and I was off on an expedition in search of rare and exquisite delights for the dying.
I was back in under an hour with the baby food, and also a chicken sandwich from Mc Donald’s for my sister. We had really found nothing we could eat in the place, and little time in which to do it anyway. The chicken sandwich was gratefully received and made short work of. She did offer me a share in her bounty, but I have grown used to chicken sandwiches from another place. Then we both turned to on our work of straightening the place. I went outside to work a bit on the gardens, and Stephanie, whose nickname Baby Bleach given her long ago by a mutual friend, scoured every surface seen, and quite a few not.
Tom had gone back to his room to sleep after he had given me directions and was, I hoped dreaming the most peaceful dreams. While working pulling up weeds and turning over dirt I wondered about his dreams and who he might be meeting in them. Not infrequently I dream of Sheila and Mariellen become one person in my dreams; who might be visiting Tom right now I thought as I mulched some too old vegetables from the kitchen.
The tomato patch, though, I left untouched, and brought in a small harvest of some very delicious grape tomatoes. Perhaps Tom would be tempted to try one when he woke up later. Alas! But, he did eat a mouthful of baby pears which made Stephanie beam and me feel very good for the effort I had made in search of them. It was a small victory over the enemy cancer.
That evening we watched a film, one that Tom had picked; one which I have totally forgotten. I couldn’t say today if it was a drama or slapstick comedy. We chatted throughout, Stephanie providing most of the momentum in that direction. Else we probably would have sat there silently, spectating rather than commenting, criticizing, questioning and laughing. When the film was finished, Tom went back to his room to sleep. We helped him into the bed, and prepared his meds and water for him should he need some pain relief during the night. He’d need the rest, I thought. It would be a busy day for him when he awoke I remember. His Hospice Nurse would be paying a visit, a lady much highly spoken of. It would be busy for us, too. We had a number of questions about care and medications and such.
Once our brother was asleep, my sister, still about her task of shining everything brightly and ever solicitous, sent me back to the hotel for the night with instructions to bring her coffee and something to eat when I returned in the morning. Her motives, you see, were not wholly pure. Nor was I in a mood to offer resistance to her mostly open hearted suggestion. There were only two places on which a person might find rest in the house. She had one and Tom the other. There was a couch, of course, but, we had not reached the point of restoring it to the conditions we both considered acceptable for a night’s rest. Having already seen our brother to sleep I left. She waved me out the door with washrag in hand.
I should also mention here, that among her reasons for sending me the few miles up the road was the fact that she wanted no part of driving in California. I agreed. Driving there was no day at the beach
On the short drive back to the hotel I thought about the day just done, how normal it all seemed, how simply routine my brother’s dying had so quickly become. But, hadn’t I been through it all before? I still had the living memories of Sheila and Mariellen’s parents with me during times like this. Driving up the 101 to the hotel I paid attention to the red glow of the Valley Fire over the hills to the east, and imagined great spirits hovering in the smoky filled night air. It wasn’t the most restful night.
There was still the sting of smoke in the air, a pall before the sun, when I arrived at the house with my sister’s coffee and a couple of sweet rolls I’d picked up at a little store across from the McDonald’s, owned by a Mexican couple. I wanted to get some coffee there, thinking how much better it would have been than the other, but it was too early for them; and McDonald’s never closes.
Stephanie was up, sitting at the table, covered with Tom’s meds, notes full of questions and directions and phone numbers; the ordinary look I think, of any house where a dying person spends their last few days. Whoever is the caretaker always seems to find the kitchen table the most convenient place for that purpose. The kitchen, the real center of any home, becomes the sacristy for the liturgy taking place; for that and vigil keeping when a quiet corner’s not available. Eating is done on any bit of clear space next to the sink, a window sill; any flat surface, really.
So sat my sister at the table when I walked in at about 7:00am, who told me that Tom had had some trouble during the night; not too terribly serious trouble. But, he had called her, pounding on the wall between their rooms, asking for some more methadone for pain. He slept now and she did not think he would wake up for a while yet. I gave her the coffee which she offered to share with me. But I wanted to try my hand at making some with the French press. So, while she “set” the table for our breakfast, I went to the sink and began work on rehabilitating the old thing. It didn’t take too long, and soon we were both at our ease, talking quietly, eating our sweet rolls and being two old people full of youthful memories and recent ones, of family and friends still here and long gone, keeping vigil while the real work was being done behind the door only a few feet from us.
It was quite a peaceful and comfortable moment; one of the best I think I was to have during those few days.
Tom had had some trouble during the night, not too terribly serious she told me. But, he had summoned her (pounding the wall between them) to give him some more methadone for his pain. He slept now and she did not think he would awake any time soon. As we sat we could hear the sounds of the grape harvest making itself known by the rumble of huge trailers carrying containers of grapes through the misty/smoky morning to the presses. And we went to work, too, continuing the task we had set ourselves the day before with the added incentive of preparing the place as well as we might for the arrival of our brother’s hospice nurse sometime in the hours ahead
As well as I could with the tools at hand, and quietly, I set about cleaning the little living room, and took down all the curtains for Stephanie for Stephanie to wash. They had long ago it seemed contained sprigs of lavender, now dried and gone to seed. So, of course, the seeds had fallen all about me as the curtains came down. While I conducted a harvest of sorts under the furniture, in the corners and between the cushions, Stephanie took the curtains up the path to the landlord’s house. They had offered their washing machine if we needed it.
Done with the living room, I turned my attention outside. The weather was still nice, and the air had cleared somewhat in the morning breezes. We thought Tom might enjoy a little time on his deck outside under the walnut tree. The tree, as trees will do, had contributed many decorative accents to the deck in the form of nuts, and squirrel devastated shells, and twigs, and, well , just plain dirt. I took the hose to the whole thing imagining myself Hercules. The Russian River being too far away (and too drought depleted) for washing, the hose made a good substitute. At least it was only one tree, a few dozen squirrels and the sheltered birds doing the work , and not enchanted cattle.
From inside the house, Stephanie brought out the mat from the bathroom, to beat the dirt from it. As we chatted in the cool soft breeze, I turned the hose on the poor abused thing. It was one of the thick and comfy type whose memory is deep and full of the presence of every person (and more) whose feet, wet or dry, had stood or walked on it; this one, in particular, was very full. The hose had work to do. While I directed its efforts, my sister talked to me about our brother, undergoing a different kind of cleansing, I thought, preparing for his final trip behind the door to the room on the other side of the house. Sometimes, maybe most times, Purgatory takes place on a bed in a small room. We refreshed each other’s recollections of our life with him in the town we called home, and the people who made up the “supporting cast” in that tragi-comedy long ago. It’s a show we never tire of re-viewing, even though the sound’s lower, the light’s dimmer on some scenes. Nor were we each present for all of them. The fog of age and memory, sometimes simply difficult to endure, edits. There are no “director’s cuts” this side of heaven. But, we did our best in the growing day.
Finishing with the poor bath mat, Steph asked me to turn the hose on the walls outside where legions of spiders had spun web curtains under eaves and window sills. “California is full of spiders,” she said seriously. Not all of them eight legged, I thought. And as I worked away with my “water thrower” it started to sprinkle and we went back inside. Rain, much needed, would continue off and on through the day; no downpour, ever, but enough I suppose everyone hoped to help re-color the khaki hills a homely green.
Inside I made another coffee and we sat for a few minutes quietly wondering about what folks in our situation wonder about.
Shortly, I got up and went to the door of Tom’s bedroom. Finding it slightly ajar, I pushed it open and met Tom, up and sitting in his wheelchair simply staring straight ahead. My entering startled him not a bit. His sitting did me. “Good morning, Tom,” I said. Quietly, and as if returning from some other place of distance, thoughtfully considering the matter of the morning and we both there in it, and that it was good he answered in kind, “Good morning, Peter.” His soft voice was true, clear, but in itself reinforcing the sense of distance for me. It was a feeling I’d had before when in the presence of the dying. I wonder now where he might have been, what he might have been doing. He had his fingers to his lips; a thoughtful gesture and pose I remembered of him, one I used too, time to time, in quiet moments. It’s the gesture that prompts “penny for your thoughts” questions. I kept silent then, knowing I’d not get an answer I guess. Like me, my brother had places inside where he took no company. Doesn’t everyone?
Still, I wondered where he might have been, or been preparing to go, and with whom. And while wonder persisted I asked him how he spent the night.
He answered as above, supporting Stephanie’s report, and asked to be wheeled to the bathroom. I did, and when I offered to help him through the door to the toilet, he declined politely. So, I simply kept the chair steady in the doorway, his move of a foot or two to the toilet exhausting him. His breath as he sat came in great gasps. Aside from the pathetic evidence of his labor the house was silent, but that was enough to fill it. I glanced over to Stephanie and saw her sad face, her pitying eyes. I stood behind the chair, and in a minute or two he signaled he was ready by standing, bent in half. I helped him dress, supporting him as he pulled up his trousers over his ill fitting flesh. Once more in the chair I wheeled him around the short distance to the kitchen, my own heart torn with pity and pain.
He sat quietly, speaking softly with Stephanie as she, smiling, offered him a variety of lovely little things for breakfast; yogurt, baby food, juice in a box. He settled for water, a sip or two sufficing. Stephanie, God love her, remained cheerful and bright, welcoming him and the day together and making a suggestion only a mother would think of: would he like more comfortable loose fitting clothes?
They both thought the best thing then would be sweat pants, and so I would make my second trip of the visit to Wal-Mart, and another stop at McDonald’s for another chicken sandwich for Stephanie, later that day after the hospice nurse had come and gone.
For she came soon after that and Tom’s breakfast of a few sips of water; a bright young woman whom I could see had a kind of affection for him that was deeper, more personal I thought, than a simple “professional” attitude. I wondered if this was the way of it with all of them dealing with people getting ready to die. Of course she took the time to deal with the professional nature of her visit, but beyond that , once done she lingered as a friendly enjoying Tom’s company and ours; and we enjoying hers. The visit took on a personal melody, even a pastoral one, and that kind of work was two-way I think, she to us and we to her. She was there the better part of three hours I think, drinking tea, listening to our stories about growing up in The City and laughing along at the craziness we lived through which today would be considered a poisonous mixture of neglect, abuse and community madness…on the part of everyone.
During her visit she carefully explained Tom’s meds and their use, and other aspects of his care. She scheduled a visit from a personal care assistant who would bathe and shave him, and told us, finally, that we could expect delivery of a hospital bed tomorrow.
And, then, she left. I was sad, a bit, to see her go, knowing I would never see her again. Such things, once rather common, I thought, are becoming more and more rare these days. I cannot remember her face any longer; just that she was there.

Hospital Bed!!

We knew only one place where it could be placed, and as Tom went back to his bedroom for a nap, Stephanie and I continued cleaning, putting special emphasis on the “office”, a large, bright and airy room that opened on the deck and had a wall of windows with a view of the garden and lawn. It was an especially difficult job moving the furniture, some of which came apart like a carefully assembled puzzle, and cleaning all of the nooks and crannies, including several in the high ceiling which we thought at one time in the recent past to have been the home of some sort of wild creatures, squirrels, birds or bats…or all three. Tom did live on a farm, after all.
We continued our ministry of cleaning and restoration for the rest of the afternoon, and then, towards evening, I made my second trip to Wal-Mart for my brother’s wardrobe update; two pairs of sweat pants. As I checked out I couldn’t help thinking what a neat dresser Tom had been…and how that helped me who had often helped myself to his clothes, so neatly stowed in his bureau, and the closet we shared. Well, he had no pretensions to style now and pronounced my purchase not only good, but very good, and comfortable, and warm. They became the last things I gave him, who had over the years supplied me with more than enough shirts and ties. I have come to think them as full payment for all I “borrowed” from him, going back decades; including the Rogers Peet suit I wore when I was first married…and still have… and which I will wear to my grave some day.
We passed another quiet evening, the best, I think, of our last short time together in this life. Tom was interested in watching the Republican Debate on TV. Alas, his sense of the time for it was wrong, and ours was completely lacking. We hadn’t a clue. That was fine with me. There were better things to do, even if they amounted to sitting quietly, talking softly. Eventually we spent some time watching the talking heads re-visit and comment on the highlights, telling everyone what was important and what wasn’t; making fun of everyone, man, woman and dog, connected with the thing.
We had no arguments about anything, but I discerned from his comments that Tom was most definitely on the red end of the political spectrum and left of the both of us. I begrudged the clock, then, because I would have loved to have explored its genesis and development in him. I remember one comment from years and years ago, when Tom and I were playing around for our parents; one of our “shows” we used to put on for them, about anything and nothing. We were parodying speeches, and he pretended he was FDR reassuring the country during the Great Depression during one of his Fireside addresses. You know, the two turkeys and garage kind of thing. He ended with, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and my ugly wife Eleanor.”
That night, Stephanie was to go back to the hotel, and I would stay with Tom, sleeping in the room next door. And so, that was the way it was; she leaving at about 10:00pm. I saw Tom to bed, made sure he had all the necessary medications and enough water nearby and went into the other room to ride the air mattress, and perchance to sleep. Perchance was a swift certainty.
Perhaps an hour or so later Tom’s cries and his pounding on the wall awakened me. “PETER! HELP ME! PETER,” I heard, and the wall shaking with the dull thuds of his pounding on it. Without bothering to dress I left the bed and went as quickly as I could to his room. Too late! He had needed to use the commode, but his weakened condition had prevented him getting there in time and he had soiled himself and the bed sheets. He sat, naked from the waist down, at the bottom of the bed, exhausted, weak and a mixture of sad, angry and upset…near tears, I thought. I was struck with contrition for my own failure to arrive on time to help him. In time, I cleaned him off and helped him get dressed. At least he had taken off his new sweats. Then I helped him lay back down to sleep on a clean and dry part of the bed. After I’d made sure he was settled and as comfortable as a dying man could be I asked him if there was anything else. “Yes,” he said. “Tell your friend I’d like to see him.”
I left and went back to my room. The rest of the night was quiet. Just in case, though, I never did get back to sleep. Later the next day, Stephanie spoke with the nurse on the phone reporting Tom’s episode. She explained that it was “normal” for people in his condition to evacuate nothing but water. He had, after all, taken nothing but a few sips of water for more than a week.

The Visit

Stephanie arrived at about 7:00 in the morning and I brought her up to date. In her typical fashion, after closely questioning me, making sure she did indeed have all of the facts, knew all the nuances, she needled me about all of it; saying it was only right that I got no sleep, having left her alone with Tom on the two previous nights. She was right. I was grateful for the bed back at the hotel; given the alternative. She was glad to hear, though, that he had asked for a priest.
As soon as I could, I called Father Rogers leaving a voice message asking if he could come to see Tom that day. An hour or so later, Father called to say he would be by at about 3:00PM. God willing, and Tom cooperating, in one day he’d receive the Last Rites and get his hospital bed. I celebrated with another cup of coffee. Stephanie reminded me that the bed would arrive sometime in the late morning.
We really had little to do after that but sit and keep watch. The house had received a decent cleaning, mostly by my sister, the world renowned “Baby Bleach”, whose capacity and skill for cleaning rivals Hercules. Tom was soon up and feeling fine. We took the time to make a good job of cleaning up the mess in his room from last night; and re-make his bed, more neatly than had been done in the darkness of mid-night. Now all Stephanie and I wanted to do was spend what time we had left with our brother.
Tommy and I were the quiet ones. Stephanie has a gift for conversation, for asking questions, for curious probing and wondering, and we were content to let her take us where she would; both to entertain and to draw us out. Quite without realizing it, I suspect, she was mothering us in a way, as well as assuming the role of a good hostess. At least that’s the way I saw the three of us. Between offering me “at least another cup of tea or coffee”, or asking Tom if he’d like a sip of “nice fresh water” or a small bit of juice, she fixed and fussed; getting rid of old newspapers and magazines cluttering the table and some nearby flat places when Tom asked her to, and returning to know if there was anything else she could do to please him or me.
Both landlord and wife, and their big dog, a gentle black monster called “Brutus” if I remember correctly came for a longish visit. We relaxed in their company, their genuine affection for Tom a lovely sight to see, and a lovely thing to witness. It had the flavor of a long goodbye that had been going on for weeks, with nothing forced or phony about it; at once a service of charity and a piece of friendship shared. Old friends in the doorway waving goodbye, is what I think about that afternoon monistry of presence for another.
They left in a misty rain, and from the doorway as they walked back up towards their own house a few dozen yards away, I saw a car enter the driveway. It was Father Rogers, come at last. “Christ enter now!” I remember thinking rather joyfully as I turned to tell my brother and sister of Father’s arrival.
“Lord!,” I said to myself, “He is a big man!” He was a young fellow, at least 6’ 4”, good looking, dark haired, cheerful and smiling; a regular Father What-a-Waste. Broad shouldered and barrel chested, I wondered if he would make it through the door. But, he did, cheerfully greeting Tom and Stephanie as I did the introductions and we all spent a few minutes getting acquainted. Then easily transitioning to the matter, Father asked Tom if he would like to speak privately with him, and Tom said yes.
Father smiled at us all, and wheeled Tom into his room, closing the door behind him, and we were alone and quiet. I think Stephanie and I said a Hail Mary. And, it was probably her idea.
After about 45 minutes the door opened and Father Sean, he had become Father Sean during our short introductions, and walked over to us. Smiling he said, “You can come in now. Join us.” The smile was food for the eyes to see. We followed him into the room where Tom was lying in bed. All was silent as we stood at the foot of the bed, and father, big man that he was, edged up to Tom in the narrow space between bed and window. From there he told us that he and Tom had had a fruitful conversation, remarking that we three must be an extraordinary people. I can’t remember what, if anything, any of us said to that. Our proper Gallaher response would have been a humorous one, but I think, this time, it was silence; and a bit of surprise on my part.
Father picked hp his stole from the little table by the window, or he may have been wearing it all along, I cannot remember, and he said, “I am going to anoint Tom, now.” He continued, briefly explaining the sacramental ritual, its purpose and effects. Then turning all his attention to my brother he asked, “Tom, are you sorry for all of your sins?” And Tom, softly but clearly, answered, “I am.”
I think that was when I began to weep. This was what I had hoped would happen, the reason I had made the trip. Beside me, I heard my sister weeping too. As the ritual continued with Father Sean bending over Tom I thought of a doctor attending his patient, as I listened the words of the prayers, and watched Father’s hands anointing hands and head, and healing, and unbinding, literally. I noticed my brother, too, weeping himself, poor soul; him practically dehydrated being profligate with his tears. The tenderest thing, though, were the tears falling from Father Sean’s eyes and cheeks onto my brother as he bent over him, praying. I watched, surprised, thankful, as several tears fell from his cheeks onto Tom in another anointing.
Father finished shortly after and put away his stole and oils. He gave Tom a final blessing. My brother thanked him, and told us standing at the foot of the bed that he would like to take a nap. We left him then, and closed the door behind us. I walked Father Sean to his car after he had said goodbye to my smiling sister, radiant with her gratitude. On the short way to his car repeated that he thought us an extraordinary family. I told him I thought he was an extraordinary priest, and would have hugged him but for two things. I knew I would not be able to get my arms around him, and I feared his return embrace. I would have been most like hugging a bear. I settled for a handshake.
As he drove away and I turned to walk back inside I became convinced that there was really nothing more I could do there. I had given my brother his parting gift, and he had accepted it, liked it. I think I spoke the same to Stephanie, and we reached a decision. The shawl would be a reminder, I supposed, the beads an aid, and he had been well prepared for the journey he’d soon take, his last one. In my heart I began my journey home.


Tom came out to join us later that afternoon. The neighbor/friend/landlord stopped by again briefly to visit and say goodbye. They were, we knew, selling the house and moving, soon, too. All was very quiet. The rain continued to fall softly, off and on throughout the afternoon and evening.
Once, and only for a few minutes while our brother was taking a nap we stepped outside for a little bit to watch the rain and some buzzards circling the hills around us; graceful I thought, and usefully, productively, I hoped. I’d gotten rid of more than one dead varmint in the past few days. They needed to pick up their game.
We were once more three in the evening, talking quietly about what was and what may be. And then, at about eight in the evening, because I had one last, long, errand to run, I took my leave of my brother. I helped him into bed and kissed him as I laid him down. “Goodnight, Tom,” I said. “I love you.” “I love you, Peter,” he answered. Those were the last words we spoke to each other. That was the last time I saw him. Our seven last words we exchanged in the same order, saying the same words, as I had with my father nearly fifty years before.
I put my hand briefly on his poor thin shoulder, then left. Returning much later that evening I found Tom was still asleep. Stephanie told me he had not stirred since I left. Quietly, we both gathered what little we had at Tom’s house, and went back to our hotel, a soft rain falling, and to sleep.
We left at about 5:00am for the airport and home.
I will never go back to California!
(The Birthday of Our Mother, Eleanor Rita Downs-Gallaher)

Posted by: Peadar Ban | October 17, 2015


P1110153After Morning Prayer

After Morning Prayer God comes to the woods.
He’s let a sunbeam down on which He slides
And not a busy bird or squirrel hides
From Him.  Trees that in night shade silent stood
Or shrouded in river mist shivered in slight wind,
He passing drapes in jeweled shawls, gold
Robes and crowns of ruby red.  As He strolls
The meadow deep in day’s new light He grins.
Done with prayer all of this I see
There with my wife and silence in the room
Until His eyes say come and play with Me.
As comet sun-ward zooms to perigee
I too race, forget all but He, One, True
God, Sunbeam Slider, broad smile welcoming.


Posted by: Peadar Ban | September 25, 2015

My Brother Tom

                                                                   Quiet Sleep and a Sweet Dream


I am listening now to Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”. It’s one of my own favorite pieces of music, tense at times but ending quietly; easily proceeding, one gets the feeling, with a promise of good at the end and the inevitability of that end. That’s me, no heavy lifting. I want to be carried.

When we were little my father told us children, my brother Tom, me and our sister Stephanie, that we all were in God’s pocket before He sent us to our parents. Our angel took us and gave us to them. It made sense to me. We started from a comfortable place, and we would, someday, return; if not to the same safe and cozy place, then, as I later learned, into everlasting bliss. Or, as C.S. Lewis described it rather excitingly in the last of his Narnia books, a place where we could go “further up and further in.”

I have depended on that all these years.

I have long thought my brother Tom was of a mind to choose the Lewis version of eternity. The eldest, he had, I think, a confident optimist’s view of life and what it offered. And what it offered was illimitable opportunity; all good things. He was a happy fellow, and I, three years junior, loved my big brother in a hero worshiping way; more than my following our father, I wanted to grow up to be like my brother Tom.

Maybe that’s the way of it with younger and littler brothers.


I remember our first summer in a primitive little cottage on the Jersey Shore. It was a short walk to the beach from that cottage. Tom must have been nine or ten, and I was six or seven. That was the year we spent several weeks of sunny days on the beach building a boat. I listened to his tales of the adventures to come each evening as we slept in the same bed in the little room. Tales of what would come to pass, the two of us in our boat and the World Ocean around. We would sail the ocean wide, catch fish by the dozens and have great adventures on the wild and stormy sea. Of course, having no idea what the building of a boat required, the project was a failure. It sank quietly into the sandy bottom just a few feet from shore on the afternoon we launched it. I thought it might have been too ambitious a plan. Tom looked for more planks of wood to build a better, safer, boat. Being boys, though, and young, we moved on to other things, exploring the woods up the road from us for signs of ancient Indians. Pretending we were just those ancients.

We may both have been dreamers, but Tom’s dreams were always bigger, more aggressive and more daring; perhaps, I think now, more romantic. He was a kind of Nimrod, I suppose; but always careful of the risks, the limits. He wouldn’t attempt a Babel; but he would, and did, dare much that others would never dream in their wildest fancies. He had a different drummer. In fact, I’d say that he had his own drum!
Its beat attracted others.


We walked back and forth to school, and each morning and afternoon several boys accompanied us. They were there to listen to my brother’s stories. Stories he made up as we went along, of events that never would but might some day in some place happen. They were the kind of stories I did not know then, but came to find out, would indeed happen to the both of us. I have never forgotten one young fellow, a classmate of mine, who traveled several blocks out of his way each morning and afternoon to listen to my brother’s tales. He was there in the morning waiting for us to arrive, and left in the afternoon reluctantly; Bobby Kupka he was named, who lived on Albany Crescent, all of whose residents were the enemies of us who lived on Bailey Avenue.

A year or two later Tom was “christened” Red Beak by the Big Kids on the block. He assumed a kind of ministerial role in the little republic of kids. And he became in many instances a sort of “envoy” to the other blocks when troubles arose, solving problems, ending squabbles.  Tom wasn’t a fighter.  He was more of a diplomat seeking the sweet middle where all were happy.

Such was my brother’s magic.


That ended when he entered High School, and was certainly put to rest when he graduated. He went to sea, then, in the Merchant Marine, sailing as a deck hand, an Ordinary Seaman, later to become an Able Bodied Seaman in the Seafarer’s Union of the Pacific, a small west coast union which had remained outside the left leaning NMU. His first trip took him around the world, the only kid in the neighborhood to be doing anything like that in forever.

But he was ever Tom when away, and on his return, laconically writing about wandering the streets of Calcutta or Marseilles, or Genoa or Naples as if he was on the subway to Coney Island, continuing life as if he had never left when back. I never questioned him much when he came home. We had begun our own and separate lives by that time. I just knew when he went, one sea bag full of clothes over his shoulder, and dragging another full of books behind him. Aside from the brief letters he would write to me or the family from time to time asking for a pair of work boots to be sent to some distant port, or a shirt, and occasionally a book he could have been away at camp for all that anyone knew. With him back I simply stopped wearing his clothes, and he picked up kidding me the way older brothers do at that age. It was a job he did well.


In the next few years before our marriages, a number of things stand out. At Tom’s urging, and because we so resembled each other, we shared several jobs under his name; working part time in the Post office during the Christmas rush, each year for longer and longer periods until we worked from October through February. We also ushered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It may have been there that he developed his fondness for Madame Butterfly. I know it was there that I developed a fondness for Wagner and the ballet. I have him to thank for that.

There are two other schemes of his which stay with me. He had been away from school for several years, and while he was attending Fordham, and I was in Manhattan, I sometimes attended classes for him, and took one or two exams. One Theology exam I remember taking got him a C in the course. The statute has run on these activities, so we are safe.

But his best was the one in which he interviewed me one Saturday morning on WFUV, where he had a half hour show each week. His scheduled guest had cancelled and he needed someone to fill in at the last minute. We built a boat that sailed a sea of some sort at last. I walked into the studio and he told me that I was L. Peter Schaeffer, a German photographer. And that is who I was for the next half hour as he interviewed me. So convincing was our little game that the engineer told him later he would have sworn we were brothers until we began to talk.


The years intervened with family and work. He was a Marine and a Peace Corps Volunteer; not so violent a yoking of the dissimilar as that may seem, and quite typical of the kind of fellow my brother was. We saw each other irregularly, and briefly at holidays and family visits when our attentions were divided among the company. It is the way of it, of course. But we were brothers, still. These things never change. Just last week when we sat together with our sister, Stephanie, once more three, the years slipped away. I saw, and I like to think he saw, too, the way we were, and have always been. I kissed him when I left and told him that I loved him. So did Stephanie. And, he did the same with us.

My oldest memory of my brother Tom, my first clear memory in fact, is of us both riding down the hall of our apartment at 2820 Bailey Avenue in the Bronx; riding down the hall of the apartment on the back of Stephanie’s crib being pushed by our father and laughing all the way; I a little more than three, and he not yet seven years old, at the beginning of the long voyage now complete for him, and the journey home, a quiet sleep and a sweet dream waiting when the long trip’s over.

Sept. 25, 2015

Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 18, 2015


Here is a poem I think I wrote a few months ago when the snow had at last left the ground. I just revised it. I was awake quite early this morning and heard the Robin call hello to the day: I think it’s a sonnet, though I am not sure of that, or even what kind of a one it may be.

Robin, First to Wake

First light brings form. Homes, where sleeping still
My neighbors lie, appear. And small birds fly,
As it grows stronger, from nests once filled
With hungry young, to search with darting eye
For little bugs about, or tiny seeds
Wind blown; promise of life from shrubs and trees.

Just so Robin, first to wake, atop a tree
Faces east trumpeting reveille –
Strong sound across the morning air. More prayer
Of pure joy in light and life there may be
You declare. I neither know nor care
To say. His song opens day’s book for me.

Oh, night returns, necessarily so
And Robin’s song again in sunset’s glow.
One bird one song sings that sounds good for all.
Begins the day, sweetly chants soft night’s fall.

July 17, 2015

Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 9, 2015


A few days ago on Facebook, which I sometimes think of as a cross between the corner bar without either the beer or the stale beer smell and “hanging on the corner watching all the world go by”**, one of my FB friends, a Catholic priest, asked us this question, “What is time?”  It’s a good bar room question,and so, while leaning back in the chair on my deck on a sunny morning, taking a sip of tea, I wondered about it.

What is it anyway?  Ticks on a clock?  Wrinkles in the mirror?  Faded photographs of The Old Man and his buddies playing softball in the park by the river have a hundred years ago? Homer, Alexander, the rest of the the Greeks and stone strewn sand wastes in Iraq, and trying to make sense of it all?

I don’t remember the fellow’s name, but I do remember the story I read some years ago, a story in a real magazine, on real slick magazine paper, about the physicist, I think, who theorized that time was not this smoothly flowing river we think it is.  He wanted us to think about time as a series of discreet events, like the succession of cards in a deck we might see as we flipped through them, or the images on a strip of film.  What’s more, he said, theses cards and pictures don’t go away.  They are still there; not in our memory, but “really” there…cards put back in their box, film rolled back on the reel.  If so, the fellow went on, we should, we may, be able to go back, to re-enter time somewhere along the way.  Theoretically, of course.  Of course. I thought too of the cards at the other end of the deck, the ones not yet flipped.  What were the pictures on them? Could we suddenly appear in the middle of the room at our great, great, great grand son’s graduation?

Really.  I mean are not space and time linked? And, if so, as each moment passes, or waits its turn, am I not linked in some wonderfully strange way to everything, everywhere? Pardon me I told the tea cup and the trees. I’m going thinking to see what, where and who is around.  And, I didn’t need a passport, or have to take off my shoes.  It was a great question..

Then, an hour or so later, when I’m on my second cup of tea, and the birds are singing sweetly (when they aren’t squawking at each other over the stuff in the feeder) another friend on FB asks another serious bar room question.  He wants to know the answer to the question: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Well, duh, is my immediate reaction to a question like that.

But, I had already gotten my brain working, and since this fellow is some kind of professor somewhere, I sense a trick.  I went inside and buttered myself a piece of toast, and thought deep thoughts as the toast absorbed the half-pound of butter I ladled onto it..  And, I thought about how to keep a brother.  I literally have one of them, you know.  He’s older than me, and he may be getting ready to leave, to exit this mortal coil, whatever that means, and pass beyond the Space-Time continuum. Whatever that means.

Both questions merged.  They have a way of doing that, questions do.

And, while I was thinking about all of that, the problem of keeping my brother, and the Space-Time thing, and butterflies in the Amazon, and what to do with the melted butter at the bottom of the toast plate, I wondered whether we were the only creatures to whom has been given this notion of time passing, and moments never being repeated. I saw a bird, a sparrow, flying over my head earlier as I sat sipping tea on the deck in the back, dark against the lightening sky. And when I looked again at the sky, I could remember what I’d seen, but the bird itself wasn’t there. It and the moment were gone, each wing beat like cards flipped, or frames of film, done and over. Which was the more real?  Of course they were both, but one was gone, gone gone, and the other.  You know I can’t even say it was happening right now, because everything, well, everything just happened.  So I was left with this…

What do I “keep” as I pass the moments by sipping tea on a Monday morning. In the first instance, I keep a memory of that bird, a picture of its silhouette against the morning sky, and its swift moving wings. I’m thinking now of a great hall of memories behind my eyes; really a jumble pushed in every which way for 73 years. Birds and other beasts react, but we can think and plan..and “keep”, possess, and protect. Is that why there’s “Time” in addition to Space?

And now I think about Adam and Eve, and wonder about their Moment, not the one where the first snotty question was asked.  You know the one I mean, “Did God really tell you not to eat of the trees in the Garden?”  No I mean the one that occurred maybe a half hour later; their moment of enlightenment.  The one where they discovered their nakedness and their sin. Maybe it was their first moment of consciousness. Should he have said something to her, reminded her.  But, nothing like that had ever occurred before.  No one had ever needed to be concerned, watchful, vigilant; worry about traffic or anything else.  There were no Stop signs in Eden.  Well, there was, but, really, no one gave it a second thought.  You know?

This is a poem I wrote about ten years ago, based on that snotty question.


“Must you believe everything He said?”
It was a simple question I suppose,
But attention is something I never paid
To belief; never gave it second thought.
My response to everything was, “Fiat!”
The same word she used who came after me.
What mattered was His word, and that was that.
The question, frankly, I found puzzling.

“What does it mean to ask if I believe?”
“I have your attention then.  Tell me that
You know the way of everything you see.”
“Everything is the way it is.  Why not?”
Was my simple answer.  Why make a fuss?
“Everything,” he said, and left a question
Hanging in the air between us,
And silence as we two walked along.

We passed that place I had passed so often.
He paused and asked me what I though
Of its majesty, beauty and location.
“may we not both stay here a while and rest,
Refresh ourselves in this sweet place and take
Our ease?  We may just find something to eat
Among the trees and sit beside the lake.”
I saw no harm in resting, but said, “Wait,

Friend, and we will be filled with all good things.
A feast is spread each evening when shadows
Fill hollows and myriads of birds sing
A song of parting to daylight’s last glow.”
“But there is so much here.  Is this all no good?”
“Everything is good, but, we never taste
The fruit of this tree.  He has said we would
Die if we do.  We believe what He says.”

“Ah, yes.  You believe.  You trust His word, then?”
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t trust
Him when He tells us something.  Trust has been
The way of it between Him and us.”
“Then help me understand.  is this poison?”
Saying this he took a fruit, “It seems not
To be so and you said, to my recollection,
Everything is good.  If that’s true, then what

Harm could there come to me by eating it?”
He bit and chewed, and swallowed, smiling while
he did this simple thing, and bade me sit.
Too surprised to speak I sat down silent
In the shade of the tree whose fruit he held.
“I don’t think eating this will make me die.
It simply tastes too good to be at all bad.
I think, dear one, you have believed a lie.

I know the difference between bad and good
beleieve me when i say no harm will come to you.”
He reached into the tree from where he stood
And gently took another ripened fruit.
“take this and eat it.  You’ll be satisfied.”
I took and held the globe in my two hands,
Evidence of his words before my eyes.
I trusted, ate, began to understand.

And, now as evening turns to darkest night
Remorse has seized my heart from that first bite

March 9, 2005

Did time start there? And, with it did that sense of responsibility that might be called “keeping”; brothers, laws, commandments and trust? Do butterflies matter? Silly questions seem to.

** The original lyrics to the song were “Standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.” a hit song by a group of guys named The Four Lads whom I saw perform at Carnegie Hall in one of the last concerts where no one was smoking dope.:

Posted by: Peadar Ban | June 27, 2015

One Giant Leap

The birds sing sweetly outside in the cool early morning.  I sit listening to a Robin’s morning song, a Cardinal’s quiet call from the azalea bush just by the window.  The sun has risen behind a soft blanket of gray clouds gathering for the rain later this afternoon.  Nothing seems to have changed at all.

Did they know or notice any change, our first parents, on the morning after, looking back on the closed and guarded gates of Paradise?  Would not the birds have been singing that morning, and the sun in the sky; singing the same song, shedding the same light, as they began their long walk away?  Would they not wonder why?

It was such a beautiful tree, so ripe the fruit, so sweet the taste, so honest the desire, so appropriate the reason.  There was equality to be achieved. Is it not just?  And, against equality who can argue, or why quibble about methods?

Was not Joseph Stalin unconcerned with his methods: the famines, the purges, the gulags, needed to destroy the old culture of privilege so to shine on new turned earth the brightness of socialism, lighting the flame Equality across the world? Was the result not equal to the effort?

Can, or should, the new Caliph in the desert waste be concerned at all with the erasure of every trace of thousands of years of culture there, or the conversion or murder of any non-muslim in his sight, that he may bring the peace, the light of islam and the equality of sharia to his children?  Will that result not be greater than the effort?

And here, how quietly change comes and hope is fulfilled.

How peacefully promises made to ourselves can be kept. What is there to regret in that?  The past is for forgetting.

Why look back at rusting gates?  We have taken a great leap forward.  One giant leap.

What matter Paradise now with its rules and walls others make?  We have come closer to Hell where new light shines in the darkness, and rules are what we say they are.

Posted by: Peadar Ban | June 16, 2015

The Sower Knows

The Sower Knows
(A Meditation on an Ant and EZ 17:22 )

The quick little ant, black and small,
Scurried from the crack where floor met wall.
I its random wander watched across the naked tile,
Its nervous scatter, and watching smiled
As might He who from heaven’s height
Watches my wander across day to night.

A seed so have I been told I am
Scattered from the Farmer’s hand
To root, grow, fruit and bloom, but how and where,
And when? This ant, skittering here
At my feet, I neither guide nor control,
Is seed for thought, my guide; thought’s fixing foil.

No tender shoot high on mountain am I set
But like this little creature, mere toil, yet
From whose most random path rude lesson take.
Those sudden stops and starts across my way
Teach, as it triangulates for food they
Need who serve the mother and the queen.

Like duty have I, too, and purposed goal:
To serve while in the world so all may grow
And gleam jewel bright. Not what I will here
Matters, nor where I go. But serve is clear
And good sun light on green fields. From dark waste
Of rot wet stone be set in better place.

He moves within the seed, moves the soul.
He moves who makes all new to change the world;
Moves to mountains Cedar limbs, softens heights
To soil and rocky paths to pasture sweet.
Who cast me first meant good soil my home.
I chose rocks and roads where no good ever grows.

No slim tender shoot planted high was I,
But I have grown, have roots and see the sky.
From where I am there’s light enough to grow.
And will I? I believe the Sower knows.

peg/ 06-16-2015


Posted by: Peadar Ban | April 16, 2015

Today: April 16, 2015

The little yellow crocuses, the first to bloom each year, even as mounds of age old snow still loomed over the yard, are shrinking back into their nest behind the bit of granite around which I planted them years and years ago.  They are free of any care about the weather, I always think when I see them each spring, and brave.  I noticed their final few as I came down the stairs a while ago.

The cat, our neighbor’s cat a few houses in some direction from us: the cat of smoky gold color and imperial hauteur (I think it kind of funny that a guy like me uses a phrase like that) strolled across the backyard just now at 7ish in the morning, the first time I’d seen it in months.  At the top of our little hill back there he paused in leonine majesty looking back along his track, around at his rule.  He made a feint in the direction of a small bird, a titmouse or chickadee on the neighbor’s fence.  It scooted quickly into a nearby tree.  Then he stood as if waiting for a sculptor while thinking about a clever spot to put his monument.  He’s been at this for about ten years now, and I begin to wonder who will see the end of Spring’s coming first; him or me.

I left my post at the door to our little deck outside, now free of snow for the last few days, the first time since October, and went looking for a camera; the living portrait on the hill to memorialize.  He was gone when I returned a few seconds later.  He’ll be back as soon as tomorrow.  I’ll be waiting, then.

Cat gone, the young flowers just blooming on the hill caught my eye.  We saw our first daffodil yesterday away over in the corner near the flat topped umbrella shaped sassafras tree and our volunteer crab apple.  It’s still there piping a high clear golden note among the dull gray drone of unraked leaves.  And the hyacinths that I planted last spring are little blue fountains on the slope.  They were a gift from the sacristan at St. John XXIII. “Take them,” she said, “no one will miss them.  It makes me sad to see them dumped in some bin somewhere.”   I was happy for the offer, and happier still that they’ve taken to their new home.  We are becoming friends. Their cousins, the little Grape Hyacinths have started many settlements over the years, and will soon appear.  Our forsythia are on the way, and the lilacs have plans, too.

We’ve invited some friends from The Families of Nazareth over this Sunday to spend a little time with Cindy and Don as their First Anniversary rolls around.  While I was looking at the forsythia at the corner of our deck I realized it would, no doubt, just be bursting into bloom when they walk through the door.  If that is the case, I’ll march them right outside and let them be welcomed with the fanfare of flowers.

While I stood at the door thinking these thoughts in the fresh sunshine, I thought of how lately gone this time of day would have been buried in in deep shadow; or thick gray clouds would have shivered by.  For a little more than half my life, now, I’ve watched through the door the year’s progress through the seasons.  It’s become clear to me that time has been sped up, or been compressed somehow.  Shorter is the length of each season, more quickly comes the next.  It seems only a little while ago I shoveled a path through snow nearly to my waist from the back door to the bird feeders on the hill.

It will be a minute or two, I sometimes think, when I’ll be wiping the sweat from my eyes while I mow the lawn.  Before then, though, we’ll have our annual visits from the Orioles…the birds, not the team.  We’ll sit out front in the evening and chat with the neighbors walking by, pet their dogs, listen to the children playing, riding bikes or scooters; chasing balls or each other and sipping something cool; perhaps, even, an adult beverage in the blush of the setting sun.

April is not the cruelest month.  Perhaps, instead, it is the most promising.

It’s an Interesting time of year, you know.  There’s quite a lot going on.  Here are some poems I wrote a while back about it:


The hardy crocus and brave daffodil
Push up their leaves and blossom
While all the other flowers still
Sleep deep in earth’s protective bosom.

They serve the waking world
With gentle colors and hues,
And, as the morning songs of birds
Sounds honey to my ears, they my eyes

Bathe in sweet reflected light.
I include them in my prayers
Smiling, since I know dear heaven’s
Is reached on just such petal covered

peg, 1996


What does April breed
But hope born of Winter’s need;
Not violence assembled on the western edge
of comparison with November,
That gray and dreary month of
Tomb lids and tumbling night,
Of memory and desire.

April opens like a diamond
Scattering light, fanfares of color
At the retreating night,
Fills with swelling song choirs
of returning life to fight
Against the hostility of snow
Cold distance of constellations,
Banishes arrogance and death.

This month of better days plays
Silver showers and silky winds on my face,
Delights in testing trees, trains
Hills and plains for the rough rumble
Of summer thunder, the muscular
Beauty of being alive.

April, womb’s gate of the year,
Cruel only if life is cruel,
Witness of hope, generosity,
Dearly yearned for sufficiency,
Chrysalidal nugget, seed of joy,
You evidence heaven here and yet to be.

April 5, 2002

April Enters Softly

In no time at all the ground is cleared of snow
And long dead fallen leaves exposed, blown
Down the hill into deeper woods to grow
Silence in slim light where young deer nervous roam.

Softly April enters at hilltop, alone
Of all months in labor (at least here).
Gentle settling life on misty dawn
While infant blossoms waken shy and near.

One springs eternal now who died
Pregnant with salvation’s fruitful light
Sweet liquor streaming from his side
Fragrant grace incarnadine


This will quicken your pulse, and put a little Spring in your step!  Turn up the sound:

Posted by: Peadar Ban | March 25, 2015

A Poem: Where None Should Be

Where None Should Be

There are stones beneath the snow.  Beneath the snow
Are fallen brown leaves I suppose last Autumn’s oaks
Had shed in the golden days before the hateful cold,
That is all I’ll have from this fading winter, would,
Hurtling down on us from the bitter north pole,
Heap mountain high heaps of smothering snow
Spitefully freezing life everywhere.

Now the stones, buried these many months,
With the sun’s help, push through, push through
Patient as only stones can be, seem to grow
Out at the edges by less than inches.  A bunch
Of birds inside a bush wait for feeders
To be filled while a chill of rain falls
And, snow or no, feeder filling’s a job only I can do.

I fill the old plastic jug from the bag of seed
In the shed behind the house, the shadow of the eave’s
unnecessary shade making for a colder job
Than I would have, and just that much chill of heart
And hand adding to my cold work of charity
For the birds, and squirrels who’ll hoover the ground beneath
Of every errant seed when I have done my part
In the universal plan ordained from eternity
By a loving God for a lame from biting cold man.

So, jug full, frozen through, I force my way back,
The small stone heads emerging from snow’s womb’s edge,
And climb to the top snow piled peak; beating a track
All the way with numbing feet to what just may have been
The thankful prayers, or cheers, of birds from bush and hedge
On both flanks, and squirrel chatter in the rhododendron.

Wherefrom I look down on the empty feeder atop
Its six foot metal post, the first three feet deep
Embed in snow turned silver gray ice. A steep slope
Of the same stuff leads to it, whose geography
Threatens me, and dares me too, on what’s become
A fool’s errand by now.  Dare I try?  Or turn around?

In the end soft heart over hard head wins
And, one arm held straight out for balance sake
Most carefully, I, oh so slightly, bend
My one good fully operating leg;
The jug of seed clutched safely to my chest.
My first mistake.  The bad one, the right, not left,
Leg; though you’d think the sinister would be,
Wouldn’t you?  Not me though whose fate’s soon sealed
When what’s left of my Caput Femoris there
Decides to slide across its companion where
Once a soft cartilage would cushion it.

Alas! A threnody I sing for that
Lost ability gracefully to fall
And no longer dance. Just fall flat..
Accompanied by scattered seeds and melodies
Of patient waiting birds, and squirrel
Choirs within the rhododendron bush
I slide in the direction of my pain
Down the slick and icy snow hill;
Tipping as I go towards my weak right side,
Give flight to jug and all the seed inside
And land, full circle come, at least looking up.

The birds in the bush nearby are silenced.
The squirrels in the rhododendron quiet
Too.  The last seeds bounce and clatter
About.  Rain still falls cold and wet on me
Who can’t see a thing through my fogged glasses.
But I can hear the hiss of rain, and soon
The flutter of little wings, beaks tapping
On the ice, and one brave titmouse on me
Foraging for safflower seeds where none should be…


Posted by: Peadar Ban | March 21, 2015

IDA: A Film for People Who Hope, Who Believe, Who Think

Last week, to mark a Big Birthday, we sneaked away for a few days to a quiet place on the shore of the sea. One night, while outside the wind roared in from the North for one last big blow and waves ran right up to the sea wall just across the street from us, we nestled down in front of the fireplace in our room. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and somewhere drums were being drummed, pipers were piping and songs were sung. It being too cold to march in the Parade, we sat instead in our room by the wind-blown sea and watched this year’s Best Foreign Film, the Polish movie called “Ida.” It was already on our list, but we bumped it up after reading an article about it last week. The author complained that Catholics are not talking about it despite the fact that it is very much a Catholic work and all the more worth seeing for that, in addition to its prize winning status. And, she continued: “If you’re a Catholic, you’d best be consuming good art.” Not only that, ” the Catholic Church used to be THE greatest creator and patron of the arts in the WORLD. We need to step it up once again.”

Thus challenged and primed, we settled back

Most immediately I was reminded of those bleak works that came out of Scandinavia in the 1960’s when I was a young fellow, about Man’s search for meaning or something; all of them dealing in one way or another with death, illness, faith, betrayal, bleakness, insanity — or dealing with all of those things at once. I was reminded, too, of parts of Zorba the Greek, the ones without the dancing and drinking, though there’s some of that in this film too. The Scandinavian films most often were shown in what came to be called “art” houses where black was the required dress,and the required mood. Zorba made it to Times Square when human beings still went there.

We watched “Ida” on my wife’s Mac Book, which, well, neither means nor proves a thing. And other than helping you guess my age, neither do my references and memories above mean much!

Bleak it was, and all of those other things. Postwar Poland may have been a more hospitable place than the Gobi Desert in January, but not by much I’ll bet. And that’s where we find ourselves as the film begins in bareness: in a convent among three young postulants preparing for their final vows. It’s bleak, yes, but there’s much more going on there that the bleakness hides, if you let it. And as I think, now, about what I watched not yet a week ago, I begin to see behind the bleak curtain and make out the, to me anyway, simply incredible richness of the thing.

I’ll give you a very small example. There is a glance exchanged between two characters at the beginning of the film, the briefest of things that takes place during a very silent meal . That glance might have been expanded to a scene or two in any other film with all the action and dialogue “thereunto appertaining.” In another scene about midway through the film, during another meal where these two characters are present only one of them looks at the other. The “unreturned” glance could be the film’s pivot, because very soon Anna, the young novice whose past the film uncovers (including her real name, Ida) is outside the convent in the world, the clunky, falling apart place that was Poland, the postwar Communist worker’s paradise.

We meet her one surviving relative, an aunt, who tells her, with all of a serpent’s tenderness, that she is a Jew. Classical music plays in the background during this scene in her aunt’s apartment, a modern, liberated woman, a state prosecutor, and one begins to understand … because one has to since not a word is said … that the aunt “believes” in nothing.

And while we, the audience, observe, Ida, too, observes. Later, she prays. Simply, silently. For what does she pray I found myself wondering. The camera lingers often on her open, and innocent, face, and on her eyes, unblinking, watching what she had been sent out by her prioress to see, to learn about, after that glance.

As the film progresses, she sees her past and learns about her family, the ones she never knew, and how they spent the war. She sees her Aunt, and learns from her how people spend their lives these days. And we see, too; though are rarely told. Dialogue is an accent, almost an incidental, in this film, whose tale could be told as well I guess, altogether silently, in still photos laid upon a table one by one, and glances exchanged or, alternately, not returned.

So, to watch, and, yes, to hope. That’s what I found myself doing as the story went along, hoping for Ida, for her Aunt, for the people she meets along her way. Hope that, in the end, folks will make the “right” choices. I’m trying to avoid another word that begins with “r”, here, because the film doesn’t end that way, in so obvious a manner. Ida’s choices aren’t always the best one might think, as the choices others make, or made, are not, either.

In the end, we are left with Hope, and, well, Love, too.

Someone asked me if I would recommend the film, and, if so, in what frame of mind a person ought to approach it. I definitely think the film is worth watching. I would suggest that the viewer do so in hope of receiving a gift small on the outside and unprepossessing to look at, but oh, so large within.

The trailer follows. Do yourself a favor and ignore the silliness in the comments section.

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