July is the cruelest month, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.
July is when grass and people die, when flowers wither in the afternoon heat and parents secretly count down the days until school begins and the screaming frenzy stops.
When sweat beads burn in the late afternoon sun, and air conditioners fry, and desert mouths thirst for water.
July has always seemed to me to be the longest month, though February in Chicago seemed to last 10 years.
The July days stretch into oblivion, and like the lizard darting across the scorched sidewalk in front of my path, I seek refuge in the shade and air conditioning.
In July 2015 Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and six days later Samuel Dubose was shot by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a nonviolent traffic stop.
Seven days later Bobbi Kristina Brown died, after six months in hospice care since being found face down in a bathtub, unresponsive, on Jan. 31, in much the same condition her mother Whitney Houston was found dead three years earlier.
A movement has arisen in the past year, to protest police brutality and the unjust killing of African Americans – an uncomfortable realization that the dream of Civil Rights has gone unrealized in a still-racist America. It’s called Black Lives Matter, but in the summer of 2015 – life seems cheap.
White supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black Bible Study participants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 15.
As of July 30, the city of Chicago has experienced 276 homicides in 2015 – with 55 in July alone. The average age of the dead: 28. Seventy-seven percent of victims were black.
A deadly summer is not only an American problem. Almost 12, 000 people have died in Syria since the beginning of 2015, including 20, 000 children since the conflict there began. Fifty-nine people died under torture in Syria in June 2015, almost two a day.
Countless migrants risked their lives for new life and died in the process: the Rohingya people of Myanmar in Southeast Asia were left to perish on rickety boats; Africans and Middle Easterners rushed the English Channel tunnel and a man was crushed to death by a truck on July 29. Central Americans and Mexicans died while riding atop La Bestia, while others crossed the Rio Grande only to languish in crowded Family Detention Centers in New Mexico and Texas.
Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and went on to lead the 16 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Lives – all lives, but especially those with black or brown skin, or born as refugees, or even the unborn – seemed cheap in July 2015, and yet all around the country Americans continued to blithely deny death, drinking our protein shakes and taking our vitamins.
My Grandpa John – my dad’s dad – died when I was in third grade. He lived nearby, and he enjoyed dropping by unannounced on Saturday mornings or Thursday evenings. I remember three things about him distinctly: the lingering smell of cologne, and cigarettes, that lasted on his leather gloves my dad wore well into my high school years; the sound and smell of the disgusting cherry throat spray he had to use every few minutes in the months before he died, while throat and lung cancer ravaged his ability to eat and to speak; and finally the ritual he performed every spring and summer Saturday morning when he came to visit our house.
He’d park in the street, walk up the driveway, and pause in the rocks in the front lawn – stooping down carefully to observe the battered flowers my mom and dad planted each Minnesota spring in anticipation of the return of life to the winter tundra outdoors.
I’m not even sure how tall he was – to me he seemed a giant – and yet when he kneeled down, he was at eye level with the violets and marigolds and perennial flowers in front of him – in tones of lavender and orange and gold and whatever had been on special at the neighborhood nursery weeks before.
His knees and ankles and thighs and calves had to hurt when he did it, but he kneeled nonetheless, bending carefully to remove each withered petal from the plants below. Picking carefully, he gathered them into his hands, pruning gently, making space for petals to push through.
Recently I’ve found myself paying homage to his memory. I buy the $3 Trader Joes flowers on Monday afternoons for home and the office, and the rest of the week I carefully care for the blossoms – each day removing wilted petals, trimming stems, replacing dirty water.
Sometimes it seems a romantic waste of time, an inutility at a time when every moment counts – when work and church and child and spouse and friends could use my time more than these pitiful petals and yet each time I do it I think of Grandpa John.
He was a man well-acquainted with death. Just a day after reporting to the Pacific front – Okinawa, to be precise – of World War II, he was near-fatally shot in the stomach and airlifted to Guam, and then Australia, where he barely clung to life for the next several months. My Grandma Millie, his recent sweetheart and later-to-be bride, sustained herself on infrequent letters and rosary beads from the Catholic Church down the street where later, their seven children would be baptized and confirmed.
John survived his grisly injury on that ill-fated island, but in a WWII military hospital, death was all around him. He’d watched men die on the battlefield and he regarded their agony in the starched white sheets of an unfamiliar Paradise Lost.
John returned home in one piece, physically, but he was never the same. The shooting had left him with some nasty wartime habits: GI cigarettes, an affinity toward pain medication and morphine, and an ever-present addiction to alcohol.
A young Minnesota father in the ’50s and ’60s, sometimes his four boys would have to accompany him to the bar or back home; though it was rare for him to accompany them to Sunday mass. They relied more on their strong, stalwart German mother, and when he first met my mom, my dad said he “hated” his dad.
Around then, though, John had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and before it was too late he won his sobriety. I never knew him as anything but sober as a grandpa – and my mom grew to love him dearly, embracing his frequent visits and his deep love of his grandchildren.
It was the smoking, perhaps, that led to the throat and lung cancer and congestive heart failure that eventually killed him in 1993, and I carried with me those three deep memories: the scent on my dad’s leather gloves, his cherry throat spray, and the way he pruned our dead petals.
At his funeral our family was overwhelmed by a crowd of strangers, who said they knew John from AA. For many he was a sponsor, someone to call in the middle of the night when addiction roared and danger loomed. They said he helped them get sober, that he was the mentor and leader they needed, and John’s own sons and daughters felt a strange mix of pride and sadness.
On this day as they mourned his death and remembered his life, it seemed that he’d shouldered as best he could this nearness to death: from his early years as a poor German Catholic in rural Minnesota, to the killing fields of the South Pacific, to the triage of hospital beds in Guam and Australia, to men drinking themselves to death in the bars and pubs of the 1950s, to a cancer patient, AA sponsor, and Grandpa who died too young – but not before he learned to live amidst death.
As I prune my own Trader Joes petals far from Minnesota in Southern California in 2015, I do so I think honoring this memory of my Grandpa John. I believe he did this pruning act in an almost unconscious knowledge that to embrace life and live life anew one must prune and confront death: the death of wilted petals, the death of wounded soldiers, of refugees and victims of racism, the innocent victims of careless concern for life, the death of ones we’ve loved and lost.
His act was a quiet one, a subtle one – but it was nonetheless an act of resistance against a culture that blithely ignores or sublimates the reality of death until it’s too late and death crushes us under its weight.
He himself had looked death in the eyes and attempted to ignore its power by drinking, by denying, for too many years and then – he confronted it and pruned it, choosing instead to live.
It was for him, a lifelong Catholic who memorized the Latin mass, a deeply faithful act. In pruning he acknowledged the power of the Cross and the hope for resurrection – that by Jesus’ death new life would come; that by God’s facing death on the Cross eternal life was won for us all.
For all of us who would call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus in 2015, we too cannot continue to ignore the death all around us, wiping aside the wilted petals and wounded hearts – from Maddy Middleton, murdered in Santa Cruz, to Samuel Dubose dying of a traffic stop in Cincinnati, to hundreds of children perishing on the open seas and trash-strewn refugee roads, their parents risking it all to give them a chance at real life – and those who never had a chance at all.
We must confront the death that faces our environment, that faces our families, that faces our relationships and our heavy hearts, carrying deep burdens we don’t bear to share: addictions and anxieties and worries and financial fears.
It is only when we see the death that we can then seek to prune, to pick, to clear our lives and our world of the wilted petals of the past: of racism and sexism and classism; of hatred and greed – that we will begin to live the lives God has planted for us, blossoming into brilliant colors we could never have imagined.
When it came time to plant flowers again after my Grandpa John’s death, I noticed that the sprouts again peeked up out of the once-frozen ground. I watched as my dad carefully unwound the hose and watered them gently, and then days later he and my mom knelt down carefully, slowly, eye level with the purple violets and orange marigolds that had made their way toward the sky. They carefully plucked off the wilted petals, pruning as Grandpa John had done, making way after death for the hope of new life.