Sunday, January 7, 2018

On Loss - A Brigid Guest Post

This week was difficult - the 26-year-old son of church family dying suddenly, and without warning, a funeral that was packed literally with people into the choir loft, a family inconsolable. Our minister's voice shook with tears waiting to be shed as he delivered a powerful message of hope and strength after that initial stunned announcement to our Saints of Grace.

I have been a position too many times in the past, where I too had to break the news of a tragic death to a family and it took me back there more than once this week.

The place was small and starting to show its age. The town itself was nothing more than one small living plant among an acre of weeds, robbed of vitality by the economy, its young eaten by the big cities. As I draw nearer to this modest, neat farm, I notice all the homes around here empty, grass overgrowing. Two have election signs still withering in the wild lawn, others with some children's toys abandoned in the grass as they left in a hurry, the only witness to their departure, the bitten and fruitless stalks of corn from that summer's drought. I noticed the small things, it's what I was trained to do.
A few hours after daylight, I approached the house, a cluster of pines shouldering the fence, drawing the whole walkway into darkness, while in the distance a dog barked futilely, without enough effort to scare away even a lone redhead. When I first pulled in, there was no movement, no light turning on, just the faint, cold and constant illumination of a cold morning. Then, the small movement of a curtain, someone looking out. They were waiting for me, looking out the front window at the sound of the vehicle.

The people who lived here would look as if they'd been born there, with the home somehow built around them, bright eyes in parchment skin, hands roughened by a lifetime of hard work. They would answer the door, not with deliberation but with patiently unassailable and unflinching weariness, for they likely already knew why I was here. I stepped around a pile of wood at the edge of the driveway, there with a sign "self-service firewood" with a pot to put your money in and take what you needed. This was a home of people that trusted. I did not come for firewood. I had come for something else, to be the confirmation of news that would make any hardship they'd suffered in the past, pale in the light of something much worse.
I would stay only as long as I had to, for there were always questions for which the answers I could not yet give. Questions that waited for me, still needing to be asked. This was never easy. In my heart was a whirl of emotion, tears held in for too long, held in further. I wanted to look them in the eyes and just get it over with. In an effort to compose, I looked into their home, seeing a simple cross on the wall, a black bound book on the table. These were people who likely have a belief that honor and promise and salvation lay between the pages of that book. People that believe the vindication of their will and faith would be more than what I was about to tell them.

I then looked past them, out into the acres of a life. Land that they held on for the sole purpose of leaving it to family, looking into the bright comedy of late Fall that hid laughing beneath the dying green. But my face did not show this. My face showed only it's own pouched darkness beneath the eyes from being awake for 20 hours, mouth held firm as if by doing so I could hold in the words, somehow take them back. But I couldn't

 "I'm sorry for your loss." You hear the words on TV uttered by people like myself, and no matter where it comes from, it sounds trite. It sounds bad when it's uttered without inflection, a formidable silence hanging over the scene. It sounds even worse if the words are uttered for the TV, just before the playful banter of the golf course begins again. Whether you know the person well or not, they deserve your respect, their remembrance more than the words themselves, words that rush out from the earth, gathering around us in a shadowy embrace; words that have not only a touch in the darkness but weight.
It's not always easy, as I have done it myself. Speaking of a person who's living face you've not seen, and whose name you only learned from a blackened piece of plastic and perhaps a dental record, the words don't seem real. The words are hollow and spoken as if from a cue card. It's not what you wish you could say. For that would be words in which you could somehow articulate the encompassing sense of despair and anger; despair at the loss of someone whose remains forever fly upon the tragic and inescapable sky, their ruin. Anger, because in another life, in another time, he or she might have been a neighbor, a lifetime friend.

There are never proper words, words themselves are deceiving. Taken out of context in a journalists reports, a hastily written text or email, without the emotion or the eyes, truth becomes lies and dreams the truth. Words are only that, words. Without the feelings behind them, they are only inky blackness. I can only hope that the inadequacy of these five simple words will confirm our humanity and somehow bestow on the trite repetition, its real meaning. "I'm sorry for your loss". The wrong words, words that should have stayed on a page of a script, hidden from anyone other than their author.

As I bore that burden to that family on that day long ago, I saw it in their eyes, they know this as well, and surprisingly the man reached out to grasp my hand, bearing stoically the fields of their devastation, reaching out to me in mine. It was not a handshake of welcome, for I was not, but it was a handshake that confirmed we were alive, with duties that still must be done. On that day, I was brief as I could be and left them in their silence, the only sound an old retriever in his dog run, pacing on whispering soil, his ears bobbing as he went to and fro, sensing as animals do, that something was irretrievably wrong. There were no words for that either. Grief is a strange beast, never showing quite the same face twice. It burns sometimes like a rapacious cauldron flame, sometimes catches us like a silent, frozen breath. Even as it fades away it stays with us, leaving scars upon us even as the coldness retreats.
I backed slowly out of the driveway, retreating like a glacier, leaving deep ruts in my wake, marks on a life that would be there til time ceased. Around me, farms, barns, fences, where people built and clawed and grew, raising families, doing what they could to hold back the wall of wilderness and death. It was a battle not without cost in life and property, that lust for life that is not lust, nor even movement, but simply that unfettered stability called freedom. Now it simply stands, cornfield skeletons, stark, broken, flowing away as I left. Places that once seemed vastly impenetrable, diminished as the clouds wept, growing smaller and smaller, swallowed up by tears.

I left slowly and as quietly as possible, never looking back, because to do so would be to lose what semblance of control I still had. As I leave, I look out across the way, to a vacant house, in which someone's dreams were foreclosed. We go into life eyes open, running wild. We make it through our teen years, driving like idiots and taking inordinate chances. Still in our 20's we usually don't worry about financial loss, death or even taxes. We vote for the slickest campaign slogan, we scarf down food that's bad for us. We are still young. We have so much time left, the rest of our time, with years ahead, all pretty and shiny and new. We still have dreams; of love and trust and living a wide-open life that others will accept. We don't understand. I didn't at first either, bounding into life and love with a pocket full of primers and a knife large enough for any bad news. There was nothing but being alive, of being in love, of buying that dream of believing in good, even as it left you black and blue.
But with the years comes truth, and soon you know that life isn't always safe, and you take the risks, knowing in the risk that you are truly alive, to do what you are afraid of, to love strongly and free, is to be truly alive. It's better to be afraid than to cease to breathe. Those of you that are young, when you are middle aged, you will understand. For just like love, life is a risk, never a possession. With that risk comes loss, with loss comes understanding; that happiness is more than the embracement of that which possesses the possibilities on which you can establish the structure of your life, it is something within yourself.
I am glad I have lived as long as I have, having found a spot of land and a community where I feel safe, even as tragedy strikes. It embraces us now, as we do it, for many of us who have lived through life and loss share the same resilient and passionate soul, the ability to take some hesitant and half-formed resolve and till and weed and shape it with sweat and tears and occasionally blood, into dense, abundant life. We understand what it meant to live life on one's own terms, on one's own homestead; to take counsel with the great solitude that is a plot of earth, the running of fresh water, the whisper of soil and heaven that proves to some souls to be an irresistible draw. I hope when we are called from this place we will remember it fondly in what remains.


Rev. Paul said...

There is no good way to break that news; the impact is greater when it's a younger person, or completely out of the blue. But the obvious empathy you feel must be a bit of comfort to the survivors.

ASM826 said...

I have on the receiving end. I was told over the phone by a police officer that my 30 year old had died of a self inflicted gunshot to the head. I drove and then met with her next day. I knew even in my situation, that her job was very difficult that day.