Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Is Thy Sting?

One by one – purse, briefcase, gym bag – I toss into the car the tangible burdens with which I begin each day. I pause just long enough to watch wide brown sycamore leaves, curled like arthritic hands, scuttle nervously across the yard in response to an asthmatic breeze. Somewhere down the road a diesel engine grinds up a hill and its sound vibrates over empty fields and against my cheeks. It is dawn. It is autumn. It is still.

I back the car out of the carport and pull into the thin gray fog that has unfurled itself over the field, skimming the tops of big round bales of peanut hay and disappearing into the woods. My hands are cold; my shoulders shiver once and send a jolt down my arms into my fingers. It is daybreak. It is November. It is chill.

I do not turn on the radio. I do not plug my ears with the buds from my iPod. I do not need any additional voices in my head. There are too many already. Too much conversation going on. Too many questions demanding answers that I will never have.

Twice in eleven days I have stood in line to greet a new widow. Twice I have taken hands between my own, pressed them gently and said, "I am so sorry." Twice I have wrapped my arms around shoulders that felt as though they might simply fold in on themselves and disappear into my chest.

One of the widows was old enough to be my mother. One of them was old enough to be me. One had been married over 50 years, the other nearly 30. The younger of the two said, "In a world where marriages don’t seem to last very long any more, I thought we’d been together a long time." Pausing, she looked down at the crumpled Kleenex in her hand and then back at me. "I was wrong."

Minister and chaplain Kate Braestrup wrote about going over vows with a soon-to-be-wed couple. The bride-to-be was a little unsure about "‘til death do us part." The reverend, herself a widow, pointed out the obvious but often overlooked fact that all marriages end, not just the ones that are terminated by the signature of a judge. "Being parted by death is actually your best-case scenario," she wrote. "Being parted by death is what happens if a marriage works."


One of the voices in my head reminds me that both of the women, both of the widows, nursed their husbands through lingering illnesses and that they must be experiencing, along with paralyzing grief, at least some semblance of relief. Another voice, a staunchly Protestant voice, offers that the women would be feeling joy at the knowledge that their husbands had made the journey to "a better place." But there is a third voice, a soft female voice that starts as a tender trembling in the center of my chest, crescendoes into gasping sobs and contorts itself into words: "But I love him!"

The space inside my head gets very quiet. The other voices hush. How does reason or religion respond to that? How does logic counter love?

The sun emerges over the horizon, a dull yellow disk with blurred edges. The fog has risen like candle smoke and dissipated into the almost-blue sky. I park the car, go into the office, turn on the computer. A bell rings and the screen produces a birthday reminder for a friend. A friend who died two (or was it three?) years ago.

I feel the sadness of his death all over again and, then, unexpectedly, the sadness gives way to something stronger, something purer, something indestructible. The sadness gives way to love. As must everything.

Anger is destructive, but it cannot stand before love. Betrayal is painful, but it cannot stand before love. And the widows whose hands I held will tell you that Death is bitter. But even Death cannot stand before love.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

By Water and Words

A few Sundays ago, on a luminous October morning, my great-nephew was baptized. Sunshine slanted through the stained glass windows like a sword’s swath, stippled the curves of the dark wooden pews with shards of golden light and afforded dust motes a spotlight within which to dance.

While his parents met with the minister before the service began, I sat holding him, dressed in crisp white (a tiny shirt and pants, not a gown), and watched his eyelids, thin and blue-veined, slowly close. How lucky I was that he would fall asleep while I held him. No one, not even a grandmother, would disturb a sleeping baby in church.

I willed myself to absorb it all – the warm weight cradled against my chest, the soft fuzz on his head beneath my cheek, the tiny up-and-down breath movements of his back. One never forgets how to hold a baby, how to still all the voices in one’s head and concentrate on what matters.

The sanctuary filled. The organist began playing. The round-cheeked acolytes nervously lit the candles. Item by item the order of worship played out. Offertory prayer. Creed. Gloria Patri.

Then we were all standing at the altar, so many of us that the baptismal font was completely hidden from the congregation. Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. The minister took our baby into his hands, held him out like the sacrament that he is and asked, "What name do you give this child?"

"Jackson Carl," his father offered, in a voice softer than I’ve ever heard him use.

More words, old words, repetitive words. And then the minister poured water on Jackson’s head and welcomed him into the community of faith. It was, of course, simply a ritual. The faith espoused by those who stood at that altar will not be Jackson’s until, unless he chooses to make it so. But, the thing is, ritual matters. Whether it be in church or at table, pre-game or post-election, ritual generates a collective memory which, in turn, produces the "belongingness" that sits smack dab in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Jackson will not remember his baptism day. He will not remember that the congregation sang "Be Thou My Vision," that the Gospel reading was from Luke or that the Epistle was from 2 Timothy. He will not remember that he shrieked (and continued shrieking) loudly in response to the dousing with cold water or that the minister carried him down the aisle of the church laughing and proclaiming that he would, obviously, make a good choir member some day. He will not remember the jockeying of his various relatives for the opportunity to be photographed holding him. He doesn’t have to. That is the job of those of us to whom he belongs.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says that we engage in ritual "to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma." She is right, I think. Words are my way of processing emotions, but I had no words to hold the emotions I was experiencing standing at that altar, my parents at my shoulders, loving this child. This child who will delight and disturb, entertain and exasperate, please and perplex me just as his father has done. As he continues to do.

I had no words. Neither did any of the other Bradleys or Bedingfields gathered there. But someone had. So we spoke them. Exactly as they have been spoken by countless others before us. And as we spoke them, they floated up into the sunlight and joined the dust motes in a dance of inimitable joy.

Copyright 2010