Sometimes, the best thing is to get outa town

Column by Jim Bishop

Many who actually read these weekly ramblings are aware that I’m a creature of habit. I operate by a regimented timetable with little elbow room for alteration. When I come home in the evening and tell my spouse that I “had a good day,” she replies, “So, you got a lot done, huh?”

So, when it behooves me to make a sudden change in the game plan, it’s difficult to adapt. I don’t easily go with the flow, while fretting over that which remains undone.

This process was again set in motion on receiving word a week ago of the death of cousin Stan Bishop, age 69, of Long Island, N.Y., a recently retired long-time high school English teacher. While not the oldest of the 19 Bishop first cousins, he was the first of the next generation to pass from this life to the next.

While reflecting on this loss, I learn that my mom, Ann Bishop, 88, was taking a turn for the worse physically – having difficulty swallowing, not wanting to eat and talking about “wanting to go see Vernon” (my dad, who died in 1998). I began worrying that I might be dealing simultaneously with two deaths in the family.

As soon as funeral plans were known, I decided to go to my hometown of Doylestown, Pa., to attend the graveside service planned for Stan (the memorial service would take place Saturday at his home congregation on Long Island) and to check in on Mom.

By 7 a.m. on a rainy Thursday, Nov. 19, I was on the road for Pennsylvania. This was my first trip since acquiring the Miata about two months ago, albeit not a lengthy one of just over 300 miles. Much of the journey was spent on two congested, constantly-under-repair interstates.

Every third vehicle en route was an 18-wheeler. I no sooner engaged my cruise control than I’d come up behind a semi and had to decelerate because the passing lane was a long line of other motorists doing just that – trying to pass. Never mind that I’d set my speed at 68 mph – just too sluggish for most folks heading wherever they were going.

I enjoy driving solo on trips. I don’t have to make conversation if not so inclined. I can set my own pace, make rest stops as needed (once I’m out of Virginia!), go “station hopping” on the AM and FM radio interspersed with a favorite CD (this week’s “Friday Night Jukebox” show), and then, defer to the sound of steel belts slapping the concrete and the dull roar of a string of trucks passing me like I’m standing still.

I was lamenting once again the sad state of AM radio – nothing but talk shot hosts bashing the current administration , hyper-commentators preaching the gospel of professional sports and extolling overpaid athletes and religious programming asking me “where is God when your income isn’t six figures” while making desperate pleas for contributions.

I was about to end my station surfing when I came across an AM station in Lancaster, Pa., already playing Christmas music 24/7. Jose Feliciano wished me a “Feliz Navidad,” followed by Hall & Oates’ version of “Jingle Bell Rock.” How many more times will listeners hear these and other musical chestnuts before The Big Day arrives?

In spite of horrendous traffic from Allentown to Doylestown, I arrived in good time to freshen up and arrive at the Doylestown Mennonite Church cemetery for the graveside service. It was a brief but evocative rite with readings and reflective comments from Stan’s pastor who came from New York and music led by brother Mike Bishop. We visited the grave sites of other Bishop family members, including our patriarch and matriarch grandparents Walter (died 1943) and Priscilla (1984) Bishop – buried nearby.

Over the remainder of the day, I thought several times: What an amazing support system the extended Bishop clan provides in times like these, making the pain and sense of loss easier to bear. We congregated at Bill and Anne Bishop’s home in Doylestown, where I spent quality time catching up with relatives, including several first cousins whom I rarely see. Laughter rang out often from room to room as we reminisced and celebrated the life and legacy of cousin Stan.

Before heading to brother Bob’s for the night, I decided to take my perfunctory mini-tour of downtown Doylestown. On this drizzling, gloomy night, bright Christmas decorations – already? – illuminated the quaint streets and accented trademark Bucks County historic stone houses. When I was a kid, the borough didn’t turn on holiday lighting until the second week of December.

I wasn’t looking forward to visiting Mom at Rockhill Mennonite Community Friday morning, reports of her declining condition heavy on my mind. I was glad that Bob and Mike also came.

Surprisingly, we arrived to find Mom seated in her wheelchair, alert, watching her beloved “Animal Planet” channel. We greeted her, told her about the previous day’s events, wheeled her around the halls of her unit at Rockhill, tried kidding her – not much luck there – and sang a gospel hymn.

Later, Bob said that Mom seemed “much improved” over his visit with her one day earlier, noting that she’s usually better in the mornings and tends to gravitate into a funk by early evening.

Before leaving, I took one more lingering gaze at Mom, who doesn’t look and act like the mother who gave me roots and wings – always loving, always the supreme household executive and steadfast encourager of the Bishop brood. Mom is ready to go, that’s certain. But we her offspring aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Might this be my last time with her this side of eternity? If it proves to be, at least this encounter was a gratifying one.

I left from the visit with Mom for Virginia, the sun shining, temperatures almost mild for mid-November, and pointed the Miata for the dreaded Pennsylvania Turnpike (it takes its toll in more ways than one) but with a lighter heart for the experiences of the past 48 hours.

The gorgeous weather continued Saturday, further lifting my spirits, and I felt full to overflowing at church Sunday morning when our congregation joined in robust four-part harmony, “It is well (it is well) . . . with my soul (with my soul) . . . it is well, it is well with my soul.”

So it is . . . amen!

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