Yesterday I went looking for a homeless person who probably wasn’t going to accept any help.
“Have you seen this person?” I asked two DPW workers doing landscaping in a nearby park.
“Try the supermarket,” one of them told me. “Might be there. Walks around town all day.”
I’d parked my car next to the homeless person’s squat so, to save time, I cut through the local cemetery on the return trip. Maybe I’d find my client napping in the shade of a mausoleum. As I passed by the graves I noted the names. Since I’ve lived in my town for four years some of them were familiar to me. One name caught my eye.
Examining the headstone, I saw a father and daughter lay below me. The father died of old age. The daughter died in the 1970’s at the age of eighteen. The name of the wife and mother was pre-engraved on the stone but there was no date of death. That’s because I knew the mother and she was very much alive – but I’d caught a glimpse into why she was the way she was. It wasn’t the first time I’d made such a connection.
When I was in high-school, I had a teacher who was a world class grouch. A staid, conservatively dressed man, he was a strict disciplinarian – so much so that my classmates and I couldn’t stand him. But one day, during a school concert, I heard him playing the violin and was struck by the powerful emotion he conjured out of his instrument. As he expertly moved the bow along the strings, I heard a tremendous longing that somehow made him more real – as if his true self had been hidden until that very moment. Baffled by what I had witnessed, I asked a priest on the faculty about it. “Art’s only child drowned in a swimming pool when she was small,” he told me. “He and his wife never got over it.” Tragedy had struck both that old woman and my teacher and they were forever changed.
I can’t think of anything worse than losing a child. When you become a parent that fear worms its way into your soul. You shouldn’t think about stuff like that often, but that worry is always rattling around somewhere. I know several people whose children died and I’ve never asked them the question I’ve always wanted to ask. “How’d you survive?” In almost all those instances the unfortunate parents probably kept going because they had other children. But, like my old teacher, I only have the one. The most haunting epitaph I ever read was on the grave of an only child. “The unfortunate Parents ventured their all on this frail Bark. And the wreck was total.” I doubt I’d ever survive such a calamity.
My twin brother died in the womb, a heartrending event that my parent’s somehow got past; but it left a deep imprint on my psyche. One of the many reasons I entered the seminary was to avoid the possibility of losing a child, to avoid that “wreck.” But life did what life did and, years later, I found myself holding my wife’s hand as she was pushing Natalie out of her body. Standing in that delivery room, a fear that had been boiling inside me for years finally breached the surface. What if my daughter suffered the same fate as my brother? The obstetrician, somehow sensing my distress, said, “If anything goes wrong, I can get that baby out in a minute.” Then Natalie popped out healthy and perfect.
I’ve spent a good part of my life not trusting that things will work out. Whenever life’s going my way, whenever I’m happy, I get the sneaking suspicion that it’ll all turn to shit – that the other shoe’s going to drop. That dynamic’s fucked me up in ways too numerous to count. It’s poisoned relationships, sullied successes and stolen joy from my happiest moments. I still struggle with it but, when I held my newborn daughter’s in my arms I got the powerful sense that Natalie was forever. Looking into her eyes, I glimpsed a flash of eternity. Not an endless procession of dates on some cosmic calendar – but a timeless and living now. Natalie would never end, I thought. Neither would I. For a moment, things looked like they might work out after all.
Back at the homeless person’s empty squat, I came crashing back to earth. Kicking aside the fast food wrappers, empty cigarette boxes and a bottle drained of rotgut, I was reminded that life can go horribly wrong. For those parent’s who’ve lost children, things did not work out. And I’ve been around too long to ignore the fact that people are crushed by sorrow, disease, poverty, violence and depravity every day. I like to play theologian on this blog but, when I encounter people who’ve lost so much, I often think I’m bullshitting myself – that I’m just trying to convince myself into believing what I want to believe. And I really don’t want my faith to be truly tested. As a father who lost his son to disease told me, “It just sucks. That’s all there is to it.” The reality of his suffering is unknown to me – and I pray it always will be. I want tragedy to leave me alone and let me keep prognosticating from my online ivory tower.
As I took my walk among the tombstones, I suddenly felt old, useless and played out. I can’t even get a homeless person to help themselves, much less think I possess words of wisdom for anybody. As a critic on Goodreads once said of my books, “He comes across sounding like an out of work priest.” There are days when I think that statement is spot on. Every grave I passed was asking questions I could not answer; every epitaph a testament to sorrow and loss. “Many great dears are taken away / What will become of you and me?” I have no sacerdotal credibility. I don’t have any answers. Perhaps it’s been foolish and arrogant to try.
Heading toward my car, I came across a grave decorated with flowers. The person six-feet under died long ago but someone was still taking the trouble to remember them. Looking at the flowers, my seminary trained mind remembered a passage from the Gospels:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”
When people read this line, they usually think that Jesus is telling them not to be anxious about life – that God will provide. If you’ve lost your kid, however, that might ring hollow. But there’s another way to look at those words. They proclaim that meaning can found in the most unlikely of places – that there’s an “otherness which lurks behind the fragile structures of everyday life” pointing to a reality greater than we can comprehend. These “signals of transcendence” are all around us. And you don’t need theology books or a guy like me explaining it to you. Whether it’s something as simple as summer grass or lilies in a field, life is always whispering the truth into our ears – we just have to listen. But that’s not easy.
Looking at the flowers on that grave, I knew someone still missed the person buried below, that they yearned for them. Thinking about the longing sounding from my old teacher’s violin, I knew that if Natalie was ever taken from me, I’d be filled with the same terrible yearning – that all I’d want would be to hold her in my arms again. Anyone who’s lost a loved one to death understands this desire. It’s is universal to the human condition. And yet, in that unlikely place of human fragility and pain, another signal might be beckoning – that our desire to see our loved ones restored is a faint and imperfect echo of what is to come. In ways we cannot comprehend or imagine, it hints that death is not final – that the other shoe never really drops. Things might work out after all. That every tear shall be wiped away. Of course, I’m talking about resurrection – a hope beyond hope. But humankind, throughout history and in a myriad of ways, has always felt the whisper of that promise tugging on its soul. In our heart of hearts, none of us really wants to disappear.
Getting into my car, I figured I was probably thinking like an unemployed cleric again. Some people, especially those who’ve lost children, might dismiss my musings out of hand. I wouldn’t blame them. I could be totally wrong. To be honest, when I write this stuff, I sometimes feel ridiculous. What do I bring to the table, really? People have told me I have a talent for finding hidden connections and teasing patterns out of everyday happenings – but others have said I’m just a bullshit artist, trying to convince people what a “deep guy” I am. Leaving the tombstones in my rearview mirror, I shook my head. Maybe there are no signals of transcendence – no “rumors of angels.” What you see is what you get. Maybe I’ve always been full of shit.
But I’m not wrong about our longing for those we’ve lost. That’s true. That’s real. Suffering sucks and sometimes there’s no point to it but, for my sanity, I have to believe it points to something beyond this vale of tears. It could all just be confirmation biases on steroids, but maybe my very need to believe in something more, caught up as it is in anxiety and wishful thinking, is yet another signal – an affirmation that life is indeed wonderous, strange and will confound our expectations. Magical thinking? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Back in my office, I shuffled paperwork, but I couldn’t get those tombstones out of my head. I’m just like everyone else on this earth; clinging to a frail bark in the middle of a vast and roiling sea. One day I will sink. Leaning back in my chair, I wondered if Natalie will decorate my grave with flowers. Would she be filled with longing every time she looked at my name etched in stone? And when my daughter remembers her old man, she might think he was just an eccentric guy with his head in the clouds, listening for rumors of angels that weren’t there. Despite all my shortcomings, failures, vanity and ignorance, I hope she’ll understand that was the only way her father knew how to be. But I also pray Natalie will never live in fear of that other shoe dropping, that she’ll always nurse a hope beyond hope that things will work out.
Maybe that will be my epitaph.