Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A chance meeting

The man parked on a different side of the large square of cemetery ground from where I had left my car, but it was soon clear where he was heading. Head bowed, he stood next to a fresh grave site that I had first seen last December. I walked over and stood next to him.

"Was that your son?," I asked. He nodded. "I'm so sorry," I said. "That was my wife."

The fresh grave had borne a temporary marker with the name Scott Abel, and the dates 1984-2011. When I chose the adjoining plot for Barbara, I wondered if I would ever know the story behind this premature death. But fate operates in peculiar ways, and it was sometime in February when I found out the answer. A former student came to play at our church, and she asked me afterward if it was my wife who had been buried next to her old friend. They had grown up together, she said; her father being a Baylor faculty member, she was a lifelong Waco resident. Scott was killed in a traffic accident last fall. It was devastating. Of course Barbara's grave now had a temporary marker too, so she had noticed the proximity.

Then last Sunday I noticed the dedication of one of the Easter lilies at church. Given by the family of one of the deans at Baylor, it simply read "In memory of Scott Abel and Barbara Wallace." Scott had been a Baylor student as well.

Now I shook hands with his father, and as we both fought back tears I mused about the fibers that connect all of our lives in often invisible ways. Death, of course, is seen as the ultimate dividing line, but while it severs some connections, it is just as likely to bring out and reinforce others. Barbara and I never met Scott Abel in life, and except for this strange coincidence (there were hundreds of other empty spots in the cemetery I could have chosen), I would probably never have known who he was. Death has now revealed two connections that already existed, and today it opened up a new one.

Life, as always, offers mixed messages. As though to reinforce what I wrote on Saturday about the futility of looking for a religious "high" on Easter, the rain clouds burst on Sunday afternoon and it once again poured for hours. I had gone to the cemetery right after church because Easter is one of only four occasions when they let you leave artificial flowers. The reason I went back today was to see how they had come through the storm. Beautifully, as it turned out, and I can now leave them for another two weeks. Oakwood Cemetery during that time will be a little brighter than usual. The web of life, in all it artful complexity, goes on.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

...but joy comes with the morning

It has been a long six weeks, this Lent, this penitential season that comes every year just before springtime (Lent comes from the same root as the German Lenz, meaning spring) and ends as the bluebonnets and azaleas are blooming and the world is awash with wonder. This week, of course, is Holy Week, and the penitential season goes into high gear even for those who have so far been ignoring it. Not everybody gives up something for Lent, and not everybody goes to church on Good Friday. Some prefer just to wait for Easter and skip the preparation. As full as the church was for our Good Friday Requiem cantata last night, it will be more than twice as full tomorrow. Welcome back, everybody, to joy.

Of course, it's not really that simple. We live in a relentlessly upbeat culture, in which the expectation is that you can be happy all the time, or at least most of the time, and that if you can't, there's probably a pill you can take for it. How carefully we guard ourselves against our emotions - unless, that is, they're happy ones. I've been reading one email after another on the Yahoo grief support group from people who have lost loved ones recently - many more recently than I - and who are being told on all sides to "get over it" and get back to work. Take off the ring, give away the clothes, move on with your life; that seems to be the gist of it. Above all, be happy again. That's a language we all understand.

So having gone through Lent and an even longer season of mourning that stretches back to the week before Christmas, I want to share something I've learned. Just as grief is not the same thing as depression, so is joy not the same thing as happiness. Joy comes unbidden, in the midst of tears. Joy reaches into the depths of our souls and signals our yearning for what might be, but is not yet. You can be happy and not know joy. You can be sad and know it deeply, and wait patiently for it because you've seen it before and know that it will arrive as a gift of grace, at precisely that moment when you let go of any attempt to pull the strings.

That's why those who go to the Easter service tomorrow hoping for a religious "high" are likely to be disappointed. Sure, they'll sing some happy songs and smell some flowers, and the colors will be bright and encouraging. Maybe they'll watch their children go on an Easter egg hunt, and the famous bunny may even make an appearance. What, you don't believe in the Easter bunny? Actually, I would submit that that is exactly what a lot of people believe in. If you think you can have joy without penitence - rejoicing without mourning - then you believe in the Easter bunny. It's a nice fairy tale, but it's not how life is.

I already knew this, but my mourning over the past months has reminded me of the deep link between grief and joy. Those who have known the most adversity, suffered the most hardship, borne the most grief, are precisely the ones who learn to cultivate joy, who make a habit of inhaling deeply and waiting for the sounds and smells and surprising kaleidoscopic variety of grace.

The other day I stepped outside from my basement office for a breath of fresh air and found that the world was alight with springtime. We had had a pounding rain and hailstorm on Tuesday night that nearly outdid anything I had previously witnessed. Now in my brief respite I saw that the world itself was a breath of springtime freshness, the air pure and fragrant, the familiar paths of Baylor's campus welcoming and inviting, and the pressure of my teaching obligations fell off my shoulders as I walked for half an hour of pure joy, barely knowing or caring where I went.

I've been through some real emotional depths this winter and spring, and I've shared them unstintingly because, as someone suggested to me, I hope to cauterize the wound that the sudden devastating loss of my wife of 23 years inflicted on my soul. While it will be a long time yet, I'm pleased to say I've had inklings that the wound is healing as it should, and that joy, always a silent presence behind the darkest moments of my life, will indeed come with the morning.