After Shawn’s accident in mid-January, I hardly read a thing. I would sometimes pick up a book, but I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to read it. Life was too heavy, and it wasn’t possible to slow down without feeling the weight of it all. If I sat still in a chair for five minutes, I would feel that weight settle until my arms would lower and I had set my book aside.
Since we returned from the burial in Texas, I’ve been reading almost constantly. I am weary in my bones, tired out by grief and small talk. Temporarily at least, it is a relief to let myself fall, forgetfully, into the world of a book.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is simple yet searing, a short novel that consists almost entirely of one young woman’s reminiscences and conversations while recovering from an illness in the hospital. For so many reasons, this is my literary ideal. I read the entire thing in awe that Strout could shape the most ordinary words and experiences into something so powerful. Lucy Barton’s voice will be in my head for a long while.
I did not choose to read Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir because of our experiences as a family during the past few months. I’m fairly certain I put a library hold on the title without remembering the subject, and it was delivered to my local library branch a few weeks ago.
Elizabeth Alexander is a well known poet (I remember appreciating the poem she wrote for the occasion of President Obama’s first inauguration), and this is a memoir about her marriage, her husband’s unexpected death, and the first year of life without him.
Honestly, it’s the kind of book I tend to avoid (too sad!), and there has certainly been no forgetfulness while reading it. Yet, I am so glad it found it’s way to me now. It’s as much about marriage as it is about loss, and Alexander’s observations and descriptions of both are exquisite. There is a great deal of joy in this book: the joy of cooking and eating, of making art, of gardening, and the joy of witnessing your children’s growth. Alexander is open about not being a religious person, and yet her poetic sensibility and her faith in the truthfulness of poetic logic gives this honest book a spiritual weightiness that I appreciated very much.
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson couldn’t be more different. This hilarious domestic memoir (those savages are Jackson’s four children) is from the queen of the creepy tale. You’ve probably read her famous short story The Lottery. Her books We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House are wonderful, spooky classics.
Life Among the Savages, published in 1953, describes another world (pregnant mothers who are never far from their cigarettes and children who play cowboys and Indians with television swagger), but it is hilarious precisely because it describes so well the day to day insanity of life with small children.
My strongest feeling while reading this book was gratitude. Somehow, Jackson’s deadpan delivery and knack for dialogue reminded me how sweet this phase of life can be. Yes, our houses are a mess and children possess an illogic that cannot be reasoned with, but, this book seems to say, isn’t it wonderful?
In my own book news, you can listen to an interview I recently gave about Roots and Sky. Here is my conversation with Cara Strickland for Off the Page. We talk about writing, home, seasons, liturgy, and family.
Now tell me: which books are saving your life lately?
Generally, time moves consistently and at a measured pace. Each day arrives and passes like the blank squares on the print-your-own calendars I persist in using rather than the app I once downloaded onto my phone.
But there are days.
There are days when all those neat squares swim like the tears in your eyes until the past and the present sit right on top of one another. Then, you are caught. Time passes, but you are snagged on the past. You are like a winter coat dangling all summer long from that hook on the closet door.
I am caught on a winter day almost twenty years ago. I wore a white dress, and my sisters, my bridesmaids, wore green. We gathered in the fellowship room of the church of our childhood. We ate little sandwiches and cake and held white china cups of steaming coffee.
I am caught on a summer day fifteen years ago. The same fellowship room in the same church. My sister Kelli in white this time, our sister Lisa and I in pale gray.
I am caught on another summer day ten years ago. The same room. Lisa in white. Kelli and I in deep red. This time, there was a chocolate fountain.
I had not seen that room until a week ago, Saturday. We buried Shawn that day under an already hot Texas sun. Then, the fellowship room, and one more reception, but this one unimagined, unanticipated. We stood in the same room, our dresses a trio of somber colors. We held steaming cups of coffee, plates full of tiny sandwiches and cake.
Small children tugged on our arms, made it impossible to talk.
Every day, my children ask for ice cream and every day I give them some green vegetable. Last night, I served arugula sautéed with garlic and olive oil. Eager for a second helping of sliced strawberries, my older boy announced that he had finished all of his “kale stuff.”
I love my children, and I long to give them good gifts. Some days I hand out the lollipops. As Elsa’s Uncle Shawn was laid to rest, I unwrapped three lollipops in a row because she would not stop complaining, loudly, about the heat.
They weren’t gifts, they were bribes.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Yet though my children ask for candy, I give them gifts of bittersweet broccoli, caramelized in the heat of the oven. It is my best gift for them.
I give it because they are precious to me.
The problem with being snagged on the past in this way, is that the events of life do not stay in their proper places. Clearly, the weddings were good gifts, and the funeral is a terrible thing, and yet all of it has seemed to merge in my mind.
Ten years ago, I stood in that fellowship room, coffee cup in hand, trying so hard not to cry. I had found out only that morning that the latest round of fertility drugs had not worked. My grief was the same color as the deep red of my bridesmaid dress.
Because I am snagged, I am no longer confident of what has been good and what has been bad. It seems to me now that the empty womb was as much a good gift as the son who will turn ten this summer.
Once, I was confident that our good God never causes the bad thing that is pain. But I have lost that easy answer and gained a much more mysterious question: how sure can I be calling one thing good, another thing bad?
I will let the mystery be. I will follow the pattern set in the first chapter of James. For after fifteen verses on hardship, we find these words: “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:16-17).
God does not change. He is good through and through. Yet we are easily deceived. Time plays its tricks. We feel ourselves to be standing at an end.
Forgetting that we will open our mouths wide.
For this is not the end.
A few years ago, soon after our move to Maplehurst, I wrote this prayer on a three by five index card:
Lord, please make a way for my extended family to gather more often.
I added it to the small stack I keep in my Bible, and I regularly remembered it in prayer. The paper is softer now, the ink a little bit smeared.
Soon, my husband and I and our four children will fly to Texas for Shawn’s burial. Since the accident in January, my daughter and I have traveled to Hawaii, my husband has made two trips to be with my sister and her kids in Kansas City, we sent our older daughter and son on their own to visit grandparents and cousins. And now we fly to Texas.
My prayer has been answered, but the answer to my prayer is loss.
I have not visited my hometown in a decade. My children have either never been or have no memory of the place, but because Jonathan and I and my sister and Shawn share the same Texas roots, we will gather there. We will gather with my parents and siblings, my nieces and nephews, my in-laws, and with Shawn’s family. We will be joined by my father’s west Texas family, by my mother’s California family, by high school friends and college friends and childhood church friends.
In Roots and Sky, I write:
“I have long wondered if home is the place from which we come or the place we are headed. The estrangement I felt from my surroundings as a child growing up in Texas has always meant that I tend to see home as my end and not my beginning.”
This is a return to our beginnings. I suspect that whatever I find there, I must bring it back with me, a little something extra tucked into my carry-on.
Home is our present and our past. Perhaps, it is time to make my own past welcome at Maplehurst.
That index card is still tucked into the back page of my Bible. I wanted to feel angry when I read it again, but I felt, instead, some mix of fear, awe, and resignation. I believe the prayer came from God as much as the answer, so I cannot muster up any anger, just as I never, truly, mustered up that prayer.
I only received it. Repeated it. Submitted to it.
Instead of anger, I feel compassion for that other me who prayed without seeing, without understanding, but with hope. I believe the prayer was good, and so I believe that the answer is good.
It is also terrible.
Twelve men died in those helicopters, but there will be only 9 coffins. We are all dust, and we all return to dust, but some are buried in earth and others are dust in the sea.
Some part of Shawn has been returned to us, and so we are lucky. We are blessed.
And what are blessings but those gifts that are hardest to receive?
Like this opportunity to gather. This opportunity to go home again. This chance to say hello to so many.
For this gift, this chance to plant our last goodbye in familiar dirt, we say thank you.
And we say, have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.