To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal …
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance …
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
The Tao Te Ching
[Note: this piece is a follow up to this one, but can certainly be read on its own].
No matter how hard I tried to be so busy that I didn’t think about it, the day of the funeral was wrenching. Even as I bustled around the church kitchen and social hall straightening plates, directing delivery guys and supervising the church ladies arranging cookie platters with their fragile, wrinkled hands, I knew that upstairs in the sanctuary there were people suffering. Every now and then one of the ladies would try to draw me into a conversation about the boy’s accident – did I know what town it happened in? What day of the week? When his parents got the call? I knew they meant well, that their desire for details and conversation was part of their own need to make sense of the senseless, but I couldn’t engage. I smiled in what I hoped was a professional and kind sort of way, and said I really didn’t know. I love the ladies, in their sensible shoes and good jewelry, willing to bake carrot cakes because that was the boy’s favorite, and to come in to help on a Saturday afternoon. I love them, but I had to pace myself for a long day of observed grief, grief that would come so close that it would threaten to invade my own chest cavity, tighten my throat and burn in the space behind my eyes, rendering me useless to the family I had promised to help. I couldn’t afford to squander the protection of my flimsy emotional armor fighting off the mere shock and curiosity of uninvolved third parties. I breathed freely again only after they all left me and headed up the stairs to attend the service.
Then, in the empty social hall, a woman in a red coat. A tiny woman who I had known most of my life; she had lived up the street from the best friend of my childhood. Her boys, older than we were, had been “nice boys” who neither teased us nor chased us with their giant, pounding feet. I knew that her husband had died recently, and I went over to ask how she was doing. “I was wondering,” she began in her impossibly charming Louisiana accent, “if I might have a cup of coffee.” I poured her one, and handed it to her.
“This must be hard for you,” I said, reaching out to touch the sleeve of her cardinal red coat. She crumbled then, like a mummy exposed to air. Her eyes filled, her shoulders caved in, and she grasped my extended hand.
“I thought I could do this,” she gasped, “but I can’t. It’s too soon. I wanted to be here, you know, to do the right thing, but I just keep thinking…it’s only been three weeks…”. We stood there for a while, I made sympathetic sounds, she sipped her coffee. She seemed only to need that, a witness and companion.
“Would you like a cookie?” I asked. She nodded, and seemed to regain some strength as we walked to the table heaped with platters of brownies, lemon squares, Snickerdoodles, meringues, and the glorious carrot cake. She nibbled a cookie and we talked about my long ago best friend, her boys, and the neighborhood. She said that she could not go back to the service, but that she felt ready to go home. I watched her small, straight back recede, as I stood by the cookies, holding her empty cup.
Later, after the service, the mourners came into the social hall. Amidst a sea of young lawyers in black suits, the friends of the lost boy, I sought the face of his mother. She was there, pale, fragile looking with a look of vague confusion in her blue eyes. I had to look away.
In the kitchen to take the samosas from the oven, I heard a sound from the stairwell off the back door to the kitchen. I thought, at first, that it was someone vomiting or having a coughing fit, then realized that it was someone sobbing. The harsh, animal sound communicated a kind of pain that makes a person double over, the agony that makes people keen, wail, or sob as if the loss could somehow be purged from the depths of the body. I couldn’t see the person, and it did not seem to me to be a time to stick my well-meaning head in and offer my assistance. It reminded me of the only time I had seen my father cry, after the death of his own father. Whoever it was had chosen to hide like an injured animal, and was not ready to become part of the crowd eating humus and carrying on conversations about quotidian things. He or she needed to be alone with that great, hot torrent of loss.
Before I really thought about it, I was praying: “May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind quickly be freed from their illnesses. May those frightened cease to be afraid, and may those bound be free.” I didn’t think God would mind a Buddhist prayer in a church basement; it was the prayer that came first to my mind.
Later, hours later, after the trays were filled and refilled, the plates and napkins cleared and washed, and food packaged for the family, various friends of the family and all of us working in the kitchen, it was time to go home. I sent vegetarian dishes home with the vegetarians, I packed my own bag with kebabs, humus, pita, fresh fruit and vegetables, and I persuaded the dear, tiny church lady who lived alone to take home a “big” meal of one kebab, approximately one cup of fresh vegetables, and two cookies. The boy’s parents and his brother came into the kitchen to thank us for all we had done, and my 13-year-old son, who had worked with me, asked me for a hug. That doesn’t often happen anymore, and I was immeasurably comforted by his solidity and warmth. I was exhausted, my head was pounding, my feet ached, and I could feel the effects of six hours of physical labor and suppressed emotion threatening to immobilize me. At home, I took a pill, I lay on the couch with assorted dogs and cats watching Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” feeling myself stabilize, relax, and move back into the natural space of my life.
I dozed off, and when I woke up I went into my office to check my computer. As I read Facebook statuses, reassuringly bland envoys from the world untouched by tragedy, I heard a snuffling, a crnklling and a crunching. I went into the dark kitchen to find my old, deaf dog with an empty Ziploc and a pile of small wooden sticks. We had apparently failed to get one of the bags of leftover kebabs into the refrigerator, and she had found a dog bonanza. As I smiled woozily and indulgently at her, she licked the last of the meat off of the floor and rooted in the bag; life went on.