It is that time in the fall when more and more trees turn yellow, red, and brown. The dead leaves cover the ground. The summer annuals blaze away, showing their brightest, bravest colors just before the killing frost.
Death is on my mind, grief and grieving. I went to a college chapel service this morning where we prayed for a young woman, mother of two children, whose husband was killed in a car accident. The preacher in his sermon spoke of a promising college student who'd had to quit school to help support her mother and siblings after her father died. The litany at the close of the service mentioned those widowed and orphaned, a group that now includes me.
In my mind, I've practiced saying "I'm a widow." I try to say it brightly, in a way that makes me sound interesting: "Actually, I'm a widow--" Like I can be upbeat about it, because I'm over this, I've moved on, the sad part is in the past. In truth, if someone I was meeting for the first time asked about my marital status, I would probably sound almost apologetic: "I'm, like, a widow. . . . Yeah, my husband died in September, but it--it's okay. I'm okay." I'd fumble my way through the answers to follow-up questions. Even if I tried very hard, I would not be very convincing with the "moved-on" attitude, though I might move the conversation quickly on to something else.
It is hard to count myself among the widowed and orphaned, to be at the receiving end of concern and pity. Hard to repeat a standard answer to the question, "How are you doing?" to everyone who asks. Hard to listen when others project their own grief experiences onto me. Hard even to look closely at my own grief.
I learned this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins via a musical setting by Ned Rorem.
Spring and Fall
to a young child
MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Here is an excerpt from Rorem's song, sung by Donald Gramm.
I am not a young child, like the Margaret of the poem, who grieves over fallen golden leaves and "things of man" that pass away. I know that few things last, that last year's good times cannot be recreated next year, that children grow up and grow away, that change is the one constant in life. I also know that I will get through the winter, see light and new birth in the darkest days of December, and rejoice when the grape arbor in the back yard turns pink with budding leaves next May.
But still I mourn--a husband, a life, years lost to Alzheimer's, loss of security in home and family. I wonder how these things can pass away. I wonder what will replace them. I wonder if a loving God will untie the knot in my throat and the one in my gut. I wonder what words like "redeemed" and "eternity" mean to my husband now. Do human words have anything to do with life in eternity?
It should be so obvious that we all die. Are Abraham and King David alive and well and living in Tel Aviv? Is John Marshall here to advise the Roberts Court on how to interpret the Constitution? People are born, they grow old, they die to make room for more of the same.
We're coming up on the end of the post here. Where I quote from the last act of Our Town, or from the end of The Once and Future King (the favorite Camelot novel of my youth--"some of those drops do sparkle," more or less). Here's where I consider, for myself, what it is that gives life this side of the grave enough weight, enough meaning, enough joy, to soften the hard angles of death.
What does Scripture say? You could read 1 Corinthians 15, Paul's long argument about Christ, the first fruits of the dead, and the perishable body putting on imperishability--the classic Easter/funeral chapter. Paul finishes strong, no mean rhetorician he: "O death, where is thy sting?" and "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
But the promise of immortality seems like a huge leap from Hopkins' "blight man was born for." The distant trumpets of heaven are faint comfort when there's an empty place in a family home. What can fill the vast space in between earth and heaven?
To know the answer, ask what it was that made Christ the first fruits of the dead, what brought our Lord and God to the cross to die, becoming "wanwood leafmeal" like us?
Love. Pure, simple, radiant. We live on even as we mourn, because of divine love, which we see not just in the promise of the resurrection, but--thanks be to God--breaking into our life on earth.