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when the bough breaks
Bill's memorial service took place on Friday, May 6. On the Sunday following, we breakfasted with out-of-town friends of our daughter's, while the bishop preached at First Church. Seven days after that, Kris and I sat in the pews while the choir sang portions of Brahms's Requiem, dedicated to Bill's memory. Leaving church that morning, I felt that preaching couldn't be any harder than sitting, and might even be easier. So on Sunday, May 29, I reentered the pulpit. What I had not taken into account was Memorial Day weekend. As the preacher of the morning, it fell to me to read the roll of the dead. Nothing I said during the sermon proved as difficult as saying my son's name aloud. But painful though it was, and choked though I sounded, it may have been the first moment I knew with certainty that Bill was gone.
Isaiah 40:27–31, Matthew 10:29–31
* * *
In a week when the Detroit Tigers have lost not one, but two center fielders to disabling injury, I find my thoughts turning to Lucy Van Pelt (of that woebegone "Peanuts" baseball team) who never met a fly ball she could catch or couldn't concoct a good excuse for missing. I'll never forget the day she turned to Charlie Brown and said, "Sorry I missed that fly ball, manager. I thought I had it. But just as I was about to catch it, I suddenly remembered all the others I had missed. I guess you could say that the past got in my eyes."
I know the feeling. Because if anything ails this sermon, it can probably be traced to the fact that I wrote it with whole big pieces of the past in my eyes. For since I last stood in this place to preach on a Sunday morning, my son died ... too soon at age twenty-seven, and too tragically for reasons that are no longer a mystery to anybody. I still find myself doing all kinds of things and saying, "The last time I did this, Bill was alive. And none of this had happened." But it has happened, and I must find ways to do again what I did before, even though nothing will ever be the way it was before. This is why the past gets in my eyes rather regularly, sometimes in the form of short-term tears, other times in the form of long-term memories, and occasionally in the collage of faces and places that once constituted the world of "the way we were."
How does it feel? It feels bad. It feels sad. It feels empty, achy, and lonely. It feels like everything takes twice as long and means half as much. And above all else, grief feels laboriously like work, except that you don't get any days off ... perhaps for a very long time. Anna Quindlen, writing in a recent column in the New York Times, reflected on the much-too-soon death of her sister-in-law at the age of forty-one, and on a pair of nieces left behind. Concerning her nieces, she wrote:
My brother and I know too much about their future, since we were both teenagers when our mother died. So if the girls were to ask us, "When does it stop hurting?", we would have to answer in all honest candor: "If it ever does, we'll let you know."
We grieve hardest for what can't be replaced. For in a world where parts are designed to be interchangeable, Kris and I can't go out and get another "Bill." And if we had to lose him this soon, I would have longed for one last good-bye and twenty fewer questions.
So much for how we are "feeling it." I could say more, and may in time. But grief, as Anna Quindlen also observed, "is one of the few things that has the power to silence us." Which is why everyone who comes near us begins by saying, "We wish we knew what to say." But why should you, when we don't know what to say either?
So "feeling it" will probably have to be done in private. "Facing it," however, is no less important, and is a far more public matter. For we are certainly not facing it alone. To the degree we are standing, it is because we are being pulled up ... propped up ... held up ... and bucked up by an incredible number of kind and caring people, who may not always know what to say, but who are saying it most eloquently. At the close of Bill's memorial service (three weeks ago Friday), our head usher, Carver Wood, was heard to say, "I don't know when I have ever seen such an eloquent testimony to a young man or his family." But when he spoke about "eloquent testimony," he was not just talking about six robed clergy who stood in front of microphones and said something, but about the hundreds upon hundreds of others who sat in pews or folding chairs and said nothing.
I suppose many people came because they felt for us. But I suppose others came because they also felt with us. Reading our mail for the past three weeks has convinced us that some of you have also swallowed a pretty deep drink from the river of suffering. One of you sent along a tape of a sermon by Jim Wright (one of my illustrious predecessors in this pulpit). Jim's subject was sorrow. In the sermon, he recounted a legend out of India, wherein a woman who had lost a child came to the Buddha for solace and solutions. The Buddha told her to take a basket and travel from house to house in the village, collecting peppercorns from any family that had not also experienced great loss. Come nightfall, the woman returned, her basket empty.
Albert Schweitzer, that sainted doctor of Lambarene, once wrote about "the fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain." It is a very special fellowship, one that has certainly done its thing for us in spades. Time and again, people have written about things they probably wished they would never have to write about again. But write about them they did. They shared their stories as a way of helping us through our story. A family we have known for thirteen years wrote to tell us about a son we never knew they'd had. Other letters came from parishioners, known less than a year, telling us of children loved and children lost. There were letters that helped us understand Bill, by explaining what depression feels like from the viewpoint of an insider. A twelve-year-old boy who attended Bill's service wrote that he had been recently diagnosed with ADD and placed on Ritalin, yet figured if Bill could have accomplished all the things he did without medication, he would try harder, and with less complaint, to do the same with medication. There was a letter from a girl who, three times, had tried to end her life and pondered her lack of success. There were letters from people who had seen some wonderful things in Bill that were hidden, even from us, and in the telling, gave us pieces of our son to polish and treasure. And then there was the family of the young man whose death, four years ago, occasioned my only previous sermon on suicide. That family not only wrote to, spoke to, and hugged us, but gathered from as far away as Texas to be with us. The "fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain." What a fellowship! What a joy divine!
And some who couldn't place themselves in our shoes projected themselves into our shoes. Some people went home and called their kids. Other people went home and hugged their kids. And a good friend put it all into perspective when he said, "A lot of us are feeling pretty vulnerable. If this could happen to you guys, it could happen to anybody." In a strange way, it was the most affirming thing said about us as a family.
The "whys" abound, of course. But we are slowly coming to terms with the inevitability of mystery. We are not going to get it all figured out. Ever. Which is why there is comfort in George Buttrick's observation that "life is essentially a series of events to be borne and lived through, rather than a series of intellectual riddles to be played with and solved." I guess that in coming to terms with sorrow, courage counts a whole lot mor
Excerpted from take the dimness of my soul away by william a. ritter. Copyright © 2004 by William A. Ritter. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Foreword by John R. Claypool
When the Bough Breaks
An Update from the Valley
A Taste of Honey
A Reason to Live
Posted October 23, 2005
Posted March 23, 2012
No text was provided for this review.