I await the answer. Nothing.
I am alone yet in a community of many.
Autumn is giving way to winter. Once colorful landscapes turn bleak and barren. The large sentinel pines that “guard” the replenished woodpile by the forest’s edge will soon be covered in white. There’s a guilelessness to newly fallen snow that my soul desires—a wonderful childlike yearning of innocent magical foolishness—whoosh and the bleakness disappears, the darkness gives way to light.
Another mass shooting has occurred, and though picture postcard Vermont seems far removed from Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, in truth, that perceived “farness” is a denial of convenience.
These events so real to the bereaved and traumatized, are off in the distance to me—horrific and unimaginable though they are, they impact my soul when my own losses to death are tapped into—now I feel the pain and loss, relive my own bereaving moments.
The one of my mother, for example, though she did not die a violent death at the hands of a gunman. A particularly poignant memory of her involves her constant making of notes. They appeared in the margins of her Bible, on bill receipts, scraps of paper, index cards, both clean and lightly used paper cocktail napkins—on any available pad or shred of paper within reach—and then she filed them according to a system only she understood. On the morning of August 2, 1990, three days after the death of my father, she placed a note, one she’d written but forgotten to send the previous January, on the placemat next to the cup of coffee I’d soon be sipping. I’d driven from Los Angeles to Sun City, Arizona to be with her, family, and friends as we made arrangements for my father’s memorial service and burial. This morning she and I were the first to awaken.
After our morning hug, I poured coffee and sat across from her at the small breakfast table where she and my father had hoped to share many more meals.
Her perfect penmanship seemed out of place on the yellowing index card in front of me.
“Roger,” she’d written, “thank you so much for the One Year Bible you gave us this Christmas. These words of the Psalmist have been a daily source of strength for me.”
Then I went on to read the quote to which she was referring:
If I keep my eyes on God, I won’t trip over my own feet [or anyone else’s].
Look at me and help me!
I’m all alone and in big trouble.
The troubles of my heart have multiplied; free me from my anguish.
Look upon my affliction and my distress, my life of hard labor, then lift this ton of [sadness].
Keep watch over me and keep me out of trouble.
Use all your skill to put me together,
I wait to see your finished product.
We sat in silence. I fiddled with the index card, flipping it over and over, blank side to her small, perfectly spaced words, and over again. I questioned if she ever wrestled with the way life unfolds as it does or if she had complete trust in God, without question. With Doris, and my father for that matter, there was no room for discussion because as the Psalm suggests, God would take care of everything, whether on a spiritual plane or in daily life.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
As an inquisitive youngster and a curious young man with many questions, I could not have conversations or entertain a variety of ideas with the two most important people in my life, because they would be met with, “It’s in God’s hands.” Which may or may not be true, but I always felt stone-walled and diminished by the answer, and as a result alone with my concerns.
It still puzzles me that here were two intelligent people, one a graduate of Columbia University, the other a former student at Juilliard, with whom simple conversations about God and life events could not be had.
And, 27 years later, that small index card is again in my hands. I turn it over and over as I did then. My mother whose blind faith in a present God annoyed me, but it sustained her. When she died four years ago I’m certain that her last thoughts, if she was having them, would have been of heaven.
It is morning, and as I gaze out into the forest I welcome the light frost that covers the ground. Last night’s heaviness, though present, is less suffocating. The questions remain in search of comforting answers but, Shakespeare was right—sleep is the balm of hurt minds.
My father and mother’s deaths were expected. They lived full lives. Unlike the loved ones who grieve the deaths of friends and family that is the result of random acts of violence, I had time to prepare. That said, near and faraway places where people grieve loss—Newton, New York City, Charleston, Sutherlund Springs, Las Vegas, Paris, Berlin and Utoya, Norway, among others—are fellow members of the same community of human beings that I consider “home.” Their questions, loss and grief are mine too.
John Donne, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, knew something about the community of man when he wrote: “No man is an island; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
I shake my head and smile as I think of the wonderful question-free beliefs of my parents. If I ever had any doubt of this, I need only call my brother, who would say, “But it’s the truth as they saw it, Roger.” Still, sometimes I wish their reluctant disciple son had the same level of faith as they did.
My morning-after view from the window remains the same, and then against the green background of the tall pines a few flakes of snow appear.