The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother."
--T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock
Deserts come in all shapes and sizes. It was a cool Sunday afternoon. I drove up to the Funeral Home and the parking lot was filled with cars. Good crowd, I mused as Preachers do. When I fund my way into the Chapel it was beginning to fill up with people. This was the annual Memorial service for those who had died in our area during the year. The pain in that room was palpable. I looked around the room. A lot of hard-living people. One or two men in overalls. Some dressed in their Sunday best. It was a mixed crowd—and not all of them were white. On the screen at the front there flashed the names and pictures of those who had died during the year. Most of them I did not know—but almost all of them I did know. They wee members of the human family. Somebody’s Mama. Someone’s brother. A husband or a wife or a grandfather. I kept watching the screen. A young man in a baseball cap. An old woman with a wrinkled face. One face I remembered—he had suffered from Alzheimer’s. There were few baby pictures—I guess it was just too hard. But their names appeared on the screen. Date of birth—date of death.
As the service began a little boy about eight was hugging his grandmother tight as she quietly cried. Some held their babies close and most just sat stone-faced. Not a lot of tears—and there were no sobs but across the room you knew they carried in their hearts something broken—enormous pain.
Someone said it takes nine months for a baby to be born and it takes more than nine months for us to let someone we have loved go. After the music and the Meditation we filed out into the darkness. Each family member was handed a white balloon. Balloons everywhere. And then we were told to let the balloons go. Slowly they moved upward filling the sky.
How does anyone stand it—this death business—this letting go—this missing a face and name we have loved all our life? How do we do it? I do not know. Family helps. Friends help if they don’t say too much. Casseroles help. Cards, letters and phone calls help. Tears help. Church often helps. And one day we get up and put our clothes on and look out the window at the bright, sunshiny morning. We smile. We haven’t done that in a long time. And guess what? We begin to pass on what was passed to us—love and grace and casseroles and cards and phone calls and hugs and visits where we have learned first-hand not to say too much. And in ways none of us can ponder—our losses somehow become more bearable and we find ourselves choosing again. Leonard Cohen wrote: There is a crack in everything God made—that’s how the light shines through. We grievers are well acquainted with those cracks and found them hard and scary—wonder of wonders we begin to see a flicker of light—and in its light we go on.
“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man (and woman)
how to praise.”
--W.H. Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats