Unexpected Events in Charleston

Tommy

My husband, Fr. Gregory, had been planning a short trip to our home town, Charleston SC, to visit his mother, Mary (almost 100 years old), and brother, Tommy, who was battling cancer. Everything was arranged for him to drive there Monday and return Thursday, but then he came down with a cold.

“Why did that have to happen?” he groused. “It was all planned out. Why would God let me get sick like this, and now we have to change everything?” He got better surprisingly quickly, though, and our new plan was to drive to Charleston on Friday (May 31) and return on Monday (June 3).

We particularly wanted to check in on Tommy, the little brother in the family. He was a handsome man, and very athletic, particularly active in biking. With his amused, laid-back style, he reminded me of actor Matthew McConaughey.

My beautiful mother-in-law at her 95th birthday party, with Tommy, her baby boy.
She wore a “little black dress” and high heels!

But about a year ago Tommy was diagnosed with a dangerous cancer in his mouth; doctors had to replace half his tongue and 2/3 of his jawbone. The surgery saved his life, but it disfigured him. His mouth now gaped open, and it was hard to understand his speech.

Recently more cancer had shown up, in his lungs–which meant it had metastasized. Tommy was taking chemotherapy, but it left him weak and sick.  

We made the trip that Friday, and Fr. G phoned Tommy on Saturday morning and said he’d like to come over to pray and anoint him. But Tommy said he felt too crummy to see anybody. My hubby phoned again in the afternoon, and Tommy said the same. But in the late afternoon we went over, and actually stayed for a long visit and enjoyed ourselves. (Tommy knew his brother well: he turned on a TV show about field-dressing wild game and cooking it over an open fire, and we were all quiet for a while, some of us fascinated and some of us appalled.)

I knew Jordan Peterson was giving a talk in Charleston on Sunday night, and that Jonathan Pageau, a friend and Orthodox icon carver (and host of The Symbolic World), would be part of the evening. So I emailed Jonathan and said I could give him a tour of the old city, since I grew up there. Anyone who liked was welcome to join us. Jonathan took me up on the idea, and said he could give me a backstage pass if I bought a ticket, which I did.

Next, I heard from another friend, Neil DeGraide (whose band, Dirt-Poor Robins, would be the opening act), introducing me to Tammy Peterson. She asked if I would join them for worship Sunday morning; they would be going to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church (she joined the RC Church this past Easter). I decided to go; I had grown up in that church, but hadn’t been there for worship since my father’s funeral in 1981.

Big Sunday Begins!

St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church got its start here, on Hasell St., in 1789. Charleston had one of its “Great Fires” in 1838, and this new church was built in 1839.

Below, here’s the interior. Maybe you can see on the left in front, under the wooden crucifix, a white marble baptismal font with a brass lid. That’s where I was baptized, only the latest in generations of Greens, de Saint-Amands, LeClercs, Armstrongs, Perroneaus, Villeponteaus, etc. etc. And a one-m Simons! You have to be from Charleston to know the status points that accrue from having a one-m rather than two-m Simons in your family tree. (BTW, locals joke about this kind of thing; it’s not really serious.)

I was a pious child, often talking to God, and by the age of nine wanted to be a nun. Sitting here in St. Mary’s Church every Sunday nurtured my faith, and the beauty helped me love God so much–the shining marble, the chanting, the priest’s vestments in motion, the choir in the balcony, the paintings all around.

(In my teens, though, I went the other way; I rejected Christianity and sampled many Eastern religions, until my dramatic conversion experience in a Dublin church.)

When I arrived that Sunday morning I spotted the Petersons in the front pew. Jordan sat comfortably in the corner, taking it all in. I took a seat next to Tammy, and we tried to follow in the hymnal and missal, but it was kind of confusing. St. Mary’s is now one of the churches in the Ordinariate, which is something like a diocese without borders; it was established for Episcopal and Anglican priests who (even if married) become Catholic priests. So that was the service we were hearing, not the one that would be familiar to her, the Novus Ordo.

It was kind of familiar to me, though. Before we became Orthodox, my husband pastored a “high-church” Episcopal parish in Maryland (“high-church” means one that goes in for for all the fancy stuff: vestments, chant, candles, incense, holy water, and extensive ritual). Most of Charleston’s Episcopal churches are determinedly low, but my husband grew up in the exception, the Church of the Holy Communion, the “high church of the low country.” (Some would call it “nosebleed high.”)

This mass reminded me of those Episcopal services. Everything felt light, clear, and calm. It was all moving forward at a measured pace, like a regal procession, marked with pauses and brief moments for rumination. There was some Gregorian chant and some verses in Latin. It was very polished, and it all went off like clockwork. I admired its perfection–but at the same time, it wasn’t appealing to me. I thought it felt chilly.

When we left the church, Jordan was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to engage him in conversation and tell him their ideas. He seemed imperturbed by this, but there’s a practical problem in that it impedes getting to the next place on the schedule. (I didn’t try to engage him in that kind of conversation; I would be out of my depth, and I suspected it would be rude.)

Holy Ascension Church

Once we made it to the car, we went straight to Holy Ascension Orthodox Church (OCA) in Mt Pleasant, across the Cooper River from Charleston. On our way we skirted Mathis Ferry Road where, over a century ago, one of my husband’s ancestors operated a ferry (and so: Mathewes Ferry Road).

We arrived just before communion, as they were saying the Our Father. I led Jordan and Tammy to the front; there’s always room at the front. Jonathan, who had been there for the whole service, came over and joined us. I noticed him pointing out to Jordan some features of the church, and the icon in the dome.

What a church! It’s small and glorious, a jewel box, and architect Andrew Gould‘s first church, if I remember right. (Andrew is a member of Holy Ascension, but was on a trip overseas.) I remember walking over the empty lot with Tommy, years ago, and him saying, “This is where we’re going to build our church.” I picked up an acorn, and I still have it, somewhere (maybe).

I asked someone nearby to take a picture of the four of us, thinking the others would be looking toward the altar. I must not have whispered as quietly as I thought, because everyone was looking at the camera! It made a better photo (you can even see Fr. G inside the altar), but I was embarrassed that it was taken during the Liturgy.

L to R: Frederica M-G, Tammy Peterson, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau

At one point Tammy whispered to me, “Do you have daily communion in the Orthodox Church?” I whispered back, “No, because we have married priests.” She was puzzled and I realized I couldn’t leave it like that. I whispered that we fast from sex the night before receiving communion and said, “You wouldn’t want to do that every night. Not every night.” She flashed a big smile, then whispered to Jordan and he did too.

Cool or Warm?

At Holy Ascension I noticed a contrast. At St. Mary’s the worship was cool, clear, and peaceful, deliberately paced, and somewhat formal. But worship at Holy Ascension was different. It was just as high-church, in terms of incense, chant, etc, but the feeling in the room was warm and vigorous. It was just as reverent and attentive as St. Mary’s, but without the deliberate pacing and atmosphere of crystal-clarity.

I’ve always had trouble finding words to describe this quality in Orthodox worship. Compared to high-church Western worship, Orthodox worship feels surprisingly accessible, human, and even (strange to say) simple. Though it’s extravagant in beauty, it’s not formal. It’s fancy, but not fussy. It’s strong and confident. It’s manly.

I always assumed my preference for Orthodox worship was just a matter of taste, but the other day I read a column by Fr. Stephen Freeman that considered the inherent messiness of life on earth. Everything is in the process of falling apart, including our bodies, and it seems that God meant it to be that way.

Partway through his essay, Fr. Stephen adds this paragraph in italics:

<<Parenthetically, a pet peeve of mine has to do with a certain form of liturgy, primarily seen in the various revivals of the traditional Mass in the West. There is a precision to be seen there, almost military in nature, that is among the most unnatural of human behaviors. Things are too refined, too careful, too synchronized. Liturgy is not a martial art. Such a performance creates a false icon of heaven – or so it seems to me. I prefer the messy ceremony of the East, even the occasional klutzy fumblings of priests and servers. I worry about those who are intolerant of such things – whether inside or outside of the Church. For they are destined to be tortured by the world as it exists, and apparently the world as it is intended to exist.>>

I certainly resonate with that. It’s the reason Orthodox worship is more inviting to me than the perfection of high-church Western worship. To each his own, of course, and I hope anyone who hasn’t experienced this will visit some churches and see what they think.

When it was time for communion, I was very surprised to see Tommy in line. Not only because he seemed so bad off the day before, but because I didn’t know he was able to receive communion, given his mangled mouth. I expect they give him a tiny amount. (We receive communion as a mixture of bread and wine, from a spoon.)

A small tour of old-city Charleston

After worship, Tommy went to visit his beloved granddaughters. I got into the SUV with Jonathan, Jordan, and Tammy, while Fr. G followed in his car. At the corner of King and Broad Street we paused for Jordan’s friends Marshall and Sonia Tully to get into Fr. G’s car. (There were too many of us to fit in the SUV.) Then, while Fr. G followed in his car, I spoke into my phone, and Fr. G had his on speakerphone.

First I framed things up, explaining that Charleston is on a peninsula, with the Ashley River to the west and the Cooper River to the east. A local saying is that Charleston is where the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.

(Now I’m thinking, what are some other Charleston jokes? One is that those who live in the old city, south of Broad Street, are called SoB’s. And there’s the classic observation that North Carolina is a valley of humility between two peaks of pride, i.e., tidewater Virginia and low-country South Carolina. And there’s the old joke–I hope repeating this one hasn’t become a cancelable offense–that Charlestonians are like the Chinese: We eat rice and worship our ancestors. Rice was once an abundant crop here, and it was always rice, not potatoes, on the dinner table.)

My sister-in-law Cathy (the sibling between my husband and Tommy) told me that there are photos of this doorway all over the Internet. I was so surprised. When I see that doorway I think “That’s where I had my first kiss.”

Here’s 21 King Street, which my dad bought when I was 7 years old (those are my windows, on the third floor front). My friends all lived nearby in houses like this, and as children we played in each other’s homes and yards and gardens. I’m grateful now that I lived amid so much beauty, and learned it by heart.

Back in 1960 this house cost only $33,000, and was offered in an “as-is” condition that would give anyone pause. But now we see the hidden mercy of the Civil War: Charleston was so utterly impoverished that people couldn’t tear down their homes and build more-fashionable ones. So the old city had been inadvertently preserved–but in a precarious state. My father was one of the native sons who saw potential where others saw only white elephants. The city preservation movement gradually took off, and the farther reaches of Charleston continue to be salvaged and beautified.

Today, all the houses “South of Broad” are perfectly restored. They’re very expensive, and when they come on the market cost many millions of dollars. (Here’s Zillow for 21 King–not currently for sale, but their guess would be $11.6 million.) Most of the year these houses stand empty; the owners use them only occasionally, perhaps for a party or the holidays.

Michelle and Barack Obama at a campaign event in the garden of 21 King Street (April 2007).

In a way, my father’s hopes came true: there is no longer any danger that Charleston’s beauty could be degraded or lost. And there are no children in these yards.

We followed Fr G’s recommended route: down King Street, up Meeting, down Church, and up East Bay. There we parked and walked around. Here we are on High Battery, with the Cooper River alongside. Fort Sumter is out there, off to the left. The park we call “the Battery” (officially, White Point Gardens), ahead on the right, is where the cannon were placed to bombard it. My friends and I played there, too, climbing on the cannons and stacks of cannonballs, and tearing down the Spanish moss to build forts.

At the end of our walk we lined up for a photo. In this company, Fr G and I look like hobbits!

L to R: Jonathan Pageau, Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green, Jordan Peterson, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Tammy Peterson

There we split up, and Fr. G and I went back to the West Ashley. I soon got a text from Neil DeGraide, offering tickets and backstage passes, and was grateful for them. I told him, though, I had already bought a ticket; Neil said it was fine to give it away.  

To the N. Charleston Coliseum

That afternoon Fr. G and I paid a visit to his mom in her assisted-living home, then went over to Tommy’s. While there I mentioned that we had been comped two tickets, and I still had the ticket I’d bought, which he could use if he wanted. To my surprise, he wanted to go. He certainly was having a good day, in terms of strength.

Tommy drove us to the venue that night in his huge, high, black SUV. We parked way up in a parking garage, and began the trek toward the Coliseum. Tommy knew his way around, thank goodness, because we would have been completely lost.  

On the way we passed a security guard, who asked if we knew about the bag policy. We had just seen a sign saying you could bring in only a small clutch purse, a clear plastic bag, or a diaper bag (but only if accompanied by a child). We didn’t know about that rule. I was carrying my pinky-purple leather bag, which would certainly not pass the test. But I really didn’t want to go all the way back to the car.

Then the guard mentioned that Tommy’s medical bag would be all right. So, as soon as we passed him, Tommy stuffed his medical bag inside my purse. He then carried it by the handles, down low, trying to look inconspicuous. On our way through security, one guard said sardonically “Nice bag,” but they let us pass. 

On the other side there were helpful people who wanted to show us to our seats. I tried to explain that we had two tickets on the floor and one up on the balcony, so did we need to go in different directions? Which elevator? I was worried about getting us all to the right places. 

But Tommy was getting impatient. “They don’t care where we sit,” he said, then muttered, “This girl talks too much.”  🙂 He opened a door into the arena and picked out three empty seats for us, where we had a good view of the stage. (If we’d actually gone to the comped seats on the floor, I’m so short I wouldn’t have been able to see anything.)

Jordan’s topic that evening was “Identity.” He paced the stage, sometimes with his eyes closed, working out the connections. It was fascinating to see that mind at work. At one point he pictured God present above us, like an icon in a dome; I expect he was drawing on what Jonathan had pointed out that morning.

Neil had gotten us two backstage passes, so as the place cleared out we went back behind the stage, where a security guard let us in. We didn’t have a pass for Tommy, but the guard just gave us one. Everyone was gathered in a smallish room, with Jordan sitting in a big chair in the corner, and others sitting and standing around talking. Jordan thanked me for the Charleston tour with real appreciation. Tommy sat on a nearby sofa, an arm’s length from Jordan, talking comfortably and sometimes animatedly, clearly enjoying himself.

Late Sunday/Early Monday

Afterward Tommy drove us back to his house, still jazzed by the talk and very upbeat. Fr. G and I drove back to Mary’s house; by then it was about midnight. He went to sleep, but I felt so energized that I sat up and had my prayer time (I usually wake up sometime during the night for my prayer time). I took a long time with it, maybe a couple of hours; I knew I could sleep in, since we didn’t have anything to do in the morning. 

It seemed like I had just lain down when Fr. G’s phone rang, about 2:30 AM. It was Tommy’s son, Thomas, in tears. He told us, to our great shock, that his father had died.  

It turned out that, after we parted, Tommy had walked two houses over to his girlfriend Terrie’s place. She asked him “How was it?” and he said, “It was great!” Then he leaned back and, immediately, his breathing sounded raspy. Terrie said it looked like his neck wasn’t at the right angle; she tried to straighten it but was not able. Tommy took a few more noisy breaths and died, without any struggle or discomfort. It was peaceful. 

Fr. G and I immediately drove over to Terrie’s house, where we all sat around Tommy’s body on the floor. (The EMTs had placed him there to work on him, but it was too late). We spoke quietly, sharing memories, as we waited for the coroner.

When she arrived, she phoned the funeral home for us. And when the funeral director arrived, the coroner advised us to wait in the kitchen (so we wouldn’t see the process of removing the body). But as the gurney rolled out of the bedroom, Terrie went toward Tommy automatically, and we all followed. Just inside the door we stopped the gurney and prayed for him a bit more. Then Fr. G and I went out and stood on the lawn, singing the memorial Trisagion hymn as they put the body into the hearse.

We finally got back to Mary’s just before dawn. As I crossed the lawn, a cat trotted up to me, crooning, and I stopped to pet it and talk to it. It was an unusual cat, a big one with a puff at the end of its tail like a lion. (I found out later that it was a Maine Coon cat that had gotten a “lion cut” for the summer.) I was amused that this was the last thing God had arranged for me to do that busy day, since “Pet a cat” is the last of Jordan’s 12 Rules for life.

Monday

When I woke the next morning Fr. G had already notified family members, and they were making travel plans. We’d intended to drive home Monday, but now everything had changed. The funeral was set for Thursday. I got very nice condolence notes from Jordan, Tammy, and Jonathan. I’m sure it was a shock to them; they were among the last to see Tommy alive, and he was so very alive that evening.

Tuesday and Wednesday

…passed in a blur. We had asked the funeral home to keep the body refrigerated, and to do nothing else. The Orthodox movement toward natural burial began here, at Holy Ascension Church, when Deacon Mark and Elizabeth Barna published their book A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. A number of Orthodox churches now have a “burial team,” who wash and robe and prepare the body, very simply, without any chemical preservatives. Though Dn Mark was overseas at the time (on the tour with Andrew), the Barna sons could prepare Tommy’s body.

On Wednesday afternoon the funeral home brought the coffin to the church. They had been asked to “set the features,” but had been unable to achieve a good result. Given the distortion surgery had inflicted on Tommy’s face, the non-Orthodox family members wanted the casket to be closed. But the Orthodox among us felt that it was important to have an open casket; at the end of an Orthodox funeral, the congregation lines up to give “the Last Kiss.”

But somebody had had a good idea. Tommy was brought into the church with a blue scarf tied around the lower part of his face, below his nose, like an old-fashioned cowboy whose bandana has slipped. And that fixed everything. When I looked in the casket, it was like I could see him again; I could see the real Tommy, whom I’d known for 50 years.

Tommy would remain in the church, in the open casket, from Wednesday afternoon till the funeral service Thursday morning. That afternoon we had a time for friends and family to visit, and sang the brief Memorial Service. Then, all night long, members of the congregation took turns chanting the Psalms alongside the open coffin. I signed up for the last slot, from 9:30 till 10:00 AM Thursday, when the Funeral Service would begin.

Thursday

Holy Ascension Church was jam-packed with people who loved Tommy. Here our son Fr. Stephen Mathewes is censing the body. He says Tommy was always his definition of a “cool uncle.”

At the cemetery the pallbearers (including grandson Lucas) carried the body to the grave.

We returned to the church’s parish hall for a meal catered by Lewis BBQ, one of Tommy’s favorite spots. Later in the afternoon the family got together at Mary’s house and finished off the BBQ, and told stories about this man who was a faithful friend to all who knew him. Memory eternal, Tommy.

Friday

As we drove back to Tennessee, I said, “Honey, do you remember when you were wondering why God let you get sick, so we had to make the trip a few days later?”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 11 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fifteen grandchildren.

One comment:

  1. Frederica, thanks for your lovely, evocative winding tale, encompassing multifarious events, images, personalities, personal histories, church histories, and much else, but in the end, embodying God’s Providence. Especially so for those experienced with friends and loved ones dying inside the church, when Providence feels intensified and separation from the other world much thinner. My parish in Port Townsend, WA likewise sports a natural “burial team”, which movement I’d forgotten originated with the Charleston parish! Memory eternal for Tommy… your tale of his passing certainly brings back memories for me.

    Providence even brought me to your website this evening, as my Overcast podcast player unaccountably pushed an old “Ancient Faith Today” show from August 25, 2016 featuring you discussing “The Feminist Movement”. A couple times you mentioned Naomi Wolf, identified as your friend back in former feminist days, her coining the term “power feminism” to describe the shift from its original hippie ideals of human equality/respect to identity politics exulting over “a woman being made a vice-president of AT&T!” In recent years, Wolf has emerged as a courageous truth seeker-and-speaker, conversing about her journey towards Christianity… I wonder whether you have reconnected with her over any of that?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnLYD59kN8E
    https://naomiwolf.substack.com/p/chatting-with-tucker-carlson-about

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