April 26, 2006
somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence;
— E.E. Cummings, 1894-1962
I could hear the distress in her breathing almost before I finished saying hello.
“Mommy?” It was Lynn, calling from school on a rainy Saturday afternoon. We were supposed to be together, sort of, she on the turf at Kutztown University for a field hockey tournament, and Ron and I in the stands. But it started raining the night before, a soaker sorely needed by the environment but not so good for a day-long set of seven-on-seven hockey matches.
Starting with a plaintive “Mommy?” instead of a cheery “Hey Marm!” is not a good sign. She sniffled. “Kim’s dad died this afternoon.”
Kim and her family are members of our church. Lynn and Kim have been friends since first grade. By eighth grade they were inseparable, best friends who had a telepathy and a private language. They were in all the same classes at school and went to church camp together.
The trouble began for Kim’s family in October of 2001. Her father, a robust man in his late forties, underwent what was to have been a routine heart valve replacement but which devolved into a long siege of infections, infections of the infections, and surgeries to repair what were delicately called “medical mistakes.” A few weeks after the first surgery, Charlie’s mother died. And two days before Christmas Eve his older daughter Brandi, only 21 years old, died alone in her apartment of the same undetected heart ailment.
“This will take some time,” Charlie said to me at Brandi’s funeral. These are people of faith, people of courage. In the years since that awful winter, the family recovered and reconstituted itself. Kim is a sophomore in college now, studying nursing, and her brother Zach is a senior in high school, set to begin college in the fall with an eye toward becoming an elementary school teacher. Charlie was never able to return to work, and he did have periods of depression, as well as more hospitlizations and complications. In recent months, though, he seemed more upbeat. He traveled to Florida and spoke of establishing a vacation home there. The day he died he and his wife should have been in Georgia at the wedding of our pastors’ older daughter. But he’d had a stroke on Thursday and died Saturday afternoon.
The funeral was this morning. The printed program contained some writing Zach found on Charlie’s computer, an undated piece in which he talked about what his mother’s and his daughter’s deaths had taught him about love and loss and the hope our faith teaches us. He talked about the strength he derived from his family, of the glimpses of the afterlife that had come to him in dreams of Brandi. “There is nothing to fear,” he wrote, “but only hope and joy on the other side.”
None of us has seen the other side, except in our dreams. Nor has any of us felt another’s grief, except at a distance. They are lands to which we have never travelled, and when we do, we will go alone.
Lynn came up from school for the funeral but had to go back immediately after the reception. I went to the burial in Zion Grove, a town in Pennsylvania’s coal regions about eighty miles away. I had not been to that spot since Brandi’s burial, an emotional experience that still drives some of my writing.
I took the long way home, going first a little west to a town where a childhood friend is buried, and then east to where my parents lie in my mother’s home town. These forays into the past, to places I have been before, always help propel me forward, into something new. I’ve done as much cleaning and organizing and regrouping as I can do to restart my writing life. There is nothing left but to do it.
When I got home tonight I checked my e-mail. “Welcome to Emory University’s Novel Writing Workshop,” was the subject line of one.
I’m going to Georgia, somewhere I have never travelled.
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