I was in counseling a few years ago, with Kimberly, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. We were sitting in the driveway next to our house during one of these sessions, holed up in the family’s grocery getter because we didn’t want to let the babysitter in on the dirty details of our dysfunction. Ironically, as we huddled in our minivan with our iPhone on speaker, a big truck was parked in our driveway with a giant vacuum connected to it, cleaning out our septic tank.
It had taken our counselor more than a year of regular meetings to get to the core of my problem. I grew up wanting to be a minister, wanting to help people who were broken as bad as my alcoholic grandfather, or abandoned as badly as a kid named Steven who I’d known as a boy. He didn’t have a dad; I had a great one. But I swung and missed on this profession and, 15 years later, someone was telling me I’d never bothered to properly mourn, never opened the window to grief. He said I needed to follow the rope all the way back to my loss and just sit looking at it for a bit. No judgments, no answers. Just allow myself to be sad about not getting what I had my heart set on.
Today’s temptation is to once again pick up and move on as fast as I can, to slam shut the window to the grief that accompanies the loss of a child. But I can’t wiggle away so fast. What’s holding me back? Kimberly is not in the same rush to move past unanswered prayer and abandon the mess of confusion it stirs. She is still tender, soaking in remorse. Practicing emotional intimacy with her means I am subjecting myself to a degree of grounding at a time in my life when I just want to find an escape route. She reminded me this morning that we lost a perfectly good little boy, a person with my name who had done nothing to deserve leaving so early. Then I drove by his fresh grave on my way to a meeting. And in that place, there is no other way to feel than to feel alone. Alone. There is a troop of children at home — which should more than shield me from loneliness — but having the adorable two-year-old girl barge into the room, wake you up while she is wearing a puppy costume and tell you her name is “doggy” only reminds you that a flawless little brother who would be in line to do the same thing in a couple of years. But that possibility has been sealed in a tiny white box, covered in roses and a lollipop and buried under dirt in the ground. A grave offers more comfort than no grave, but it’s not the kind of comfort we’re looking for.
My suggesting we are isolated in the shadow of tragedy can fly in the face of certain books, songs and greeting cards that have been recommended to us or sent our way in recent days. God meets us in tragedy, these writers say, he is in the midst of the mess, he grieves with us, he slogs with us through the shitstorm. Take comfort. It all sounds right until he misses the appointment. His absence suggests he is helpless or indifferent, and his greatest defenders are made to look like fools. There was a poster that was popular for years in doctor’s offices and church foyers, showing a beach marked by footsteps imprinted in the sand. The author of a poem accompanying the picture said God told him that when there was only one set of footprints, it was then that God was carrying the author during the “very lowest and saddest times in his life.”
I’m looking behind me right now and I too see one set of footprints. They most assuredly belong to me. I wonder what I’ll do if I ever see a poster like that again. I’ll probably ignore it, maybe laugh, and dwell on a divine silence even that refuses to put words in God’s mouth.
In my last post I first referred to the idea of divine silence, a phrase that I stole from a rabbi who wrote about the apparent unwillingness to directly talk to Joseph (the coat of many colors Joseph, not Joseph father of Jesus) the way he talked to Joseph’s ancestors. Even Cain, a murderer, had a conversation with God. Although he is good at divination, Joseph lacks the audible hearing-from-God superpower and, for me, this has always made his story more believable. His willingness to hang on through false accusations, being sold into slavery, imprisonment, and being forgotten is admirable in light of the fact that his faith rested on fluffy dreams instead of a concrete conversation.
I gave John Dempsey’s eulogy on Tuesday and, although I didn’t reference Joseph, I did talk about a similar kind of faith, which is more like hope. This hope is necessary to get up in the morning, even if it extends beyond feeling or not feeling the presence of God; even if it transcends my ability to have unshakable faith in the God we’ve built. My hope is in resurrection, the type of resurrection we see everyday in the world we taste, touch and hear. Will we see John Jr. in heaven? I like to think so. But the more present question is whether I can see him today or tomorrow or next month? Will the fog clear just enough so that I can piece together the remnants of his short existence and the profound impact they had on us?
As I write, I am sitting in the exact spot I sat 18 years ago when I wrote “Your Leaf Shall Be Again,” a poem about a maple tree shedding its leaves under an unseasonably warm spray of October sun. Empathize with that tree for a moment so you can realize it is letting go of a companion it birthed in the spring and communed with all summer. The tree can’t bend down and swoop up its fallen leaf. Other trees, if they could talk, would provide no comfort if they say “hey, look on the bright side, you got all those months with the tree or look at all the other leaves you have.” And there is no comfort from Mother Nature, who took the leaf away almost as fast as it provided it. She is only going to get colder.
The only comfort would come from a voice telling this maple that its leaf will be again. Maybe not the way she expects it, but there will be a resurrection after the bitter winter.
During this eulogy, I said the days John was spent being knit together in Kimberly’s womb were days that our family was being knit more closely together. His daily battle to survive forced us to change our routine, a change that required outsiders come into our home and our lives whether we liked it or not. Letting people enter the inner circle of our pain has never been our forte. And it forced me – with all my accomplishments and fancy clothes – to ask for prayer and write vivid words and share them widely without fear of those who might judge or dismiss. You believed when I couldn’t.
I disagree with you if you say this is part of God’s plan, because there are more humane and loving ways to accomplish those things. John Dempsey should not be a martyr in the quest to make us better people who like each other better. Even amid divine silence, we see the fingerprint of God in the community John Dempsey left behind.