Pastor Walter Mitty noticed that he was feeling down as he squirted some Ajax liquid into the dish pan and stuck his little finger into the water coming out of the faucet to see if it had gotten hot yet. “It wasn’t depression,” he said to himself. It wasn’t that hopeless kind of down.
“It must be Herman,” he thought. Herman was his younger brother who had died last July. Pastor Walt could already go through almost a whole day without thinking about him. And then, when he wasn’t distracted by work at Poplar Park Community Church or football on TV–when he allowed himself to be alone with his thoughts—that’s when he would notice the empty feeling he had for several hours been able to avoid.
Herman had heard the diagnosis in May of 2008. “It was ALS,” the neurologist at Northwestern Hospital had told him. Lou Gehrig’s Disease would kill him in three to five years. The expert in that disorder said that they could try some experimental treatments on him if would be willing to move to Chicago. Herman decided to go back home to Manitowoc.
By the time of the diagnosis he was already walking with a cane. He had to quit his job throwing hundred pound bags of cow feed and flour around for ten hours a day at Oriental Milling over by the old Chicago Northwestern depot.
Sue had to go to work full time as a teacher’s aid at Jefferson Elementary School because the disability payments they received had reduced their income by one-third. Tony was in the seventh grade at the time, Brian was a freshman in high school. Herman tried to do the cooking and laundry but his disease was progressing so rapidly that he would soon be in a wheelchair.
Mitty had received the phone call on May 14 and by June 1 he knew what he was going to do. “I’m going to give the church three months notice and I’ll move in with you on September 1,” he had told his brother. Herman had not protested. His ALS was “progressing,” as the doctors liked to say, rapidly. His emotionally wind had been knocked out of him. Besides, Herman somehow knew his brother would do something like that.
Sue had readily agreed to the plan, and over the Labor Day weekend Mitty was able to rent his house out to a professor at UIC. When he had announced his plan to the congregation, most of them had reacted as if he were the one who had been diagnosed with ALS.
Pastor Walt hadn’t set any church growth records at the community church, but, as often happens when a pastor and a congregation are faithful to each other and go through funerals and baptisms and weddings together, a kind of intimacy had evolved which had allowed both him and his parishioners to slip into the illusion that the relationship would last forever.
And now, after four and a half years, the relationship had been restored. The guy who had followed Mitty was fresh out of seminary and, at twenty-seven years old, thought he was going to change the world beginning with Poplar Park Community Church. He lasted three and a half years, and for the next twelve months, Mitty’s former congregation had limped along with substitutes on Sundays and a retired pastor visiting the shut-ins. So when they heard that Herman had died, a van load of his former congregants drove up to the funeral in Wisconsin, and during the reception in First Lutheran’s church basement, Gerhardt Aschenbrenner, who was the president of the Poplar Park Community Church then, asked him if would like return to his old parish.
Mitty thought that the question was kind of premature if not pushy at the time, but the more he thought about it, the more the proposal seemed like the logical thing to do. Sue and the kids seemed to not need him anymore and at 58 he had no reason to stay in the town in which he had grown up. So on New Years Day he rented a U-Haul and, with the help of his old parishioners, got his furniture out of storage and moved back into his home three blocks from the church.
For at least a week, his grieving for the loss of his brother had been replaced by the joy of reunion with people who had missed him. What was lost seemed to have been found–he feeling parents have when their son comes back home intact after two tours in Afghanistan. It was sort of like Easter on New Year’s Day.
“It’s melancholy,” Mitty decided as he plunged his hands into the warm dishwater. “It’s not so bad. Kind of sweet, in fact.” He was feeling some satisfaction at seeing the pile of dirty dishes go down and the pile of cleans ones grow in the rinsing rack. Doing a load of laundry or the dishes almost always helped him mitigate bad feelings.
“When I get up and do something, even a small thing like the dishes, I feel like I’m not completely powerless,” he would explain when people questioned him about enjoying chores. “I get depressed when I feel powerless, like when Herman told me about the diagnosis. When I made the decision to move up to Manitowoc and help them, the depression lifted, because there was something I felt like I could DO.”
That kind of melancholy had a certain sweetness, because the emptiness created by the loss of his brother was partly filled by the “welcome home” he had received from the congregation, from a degree of healing brought about simply by time and by the feeling of warm dish water on a cold January evening.