And So Is It Ever

March 11, 2007

I wept and Aedwen too except she had no tears but only that dry grief that shook her like the wind. Why did we weep? We wept for all that grandeur gone . . . .
Frederick Buechner, b. 1926
                            American theologian and writer, from his novel Godric

I’ll be all right, I told him on the phone. I’ve been through this before, it’s not like it’s something new. And it will surely happen more and more, now that we’re sailing past sixty. But the news of yet another classmate’s death, coming as it did in the middle of a week when I was awfully busy celebrating myself and singing myself, had shaken me, and I’d reported it to him in a note that explained why it took me some time to respond to other matters. I must not have soft-pedaled my distress as I’d intended, because he called, concerned. I’ll be all right, I said again, but I just can’t talk about this now.

And I didn’t think I could write about it either. Even though I’ve chosen to be very self-revealing in this collection of pieces, I didn’t want to write about yet another death. Consider your reader, already! Write about Millersville basketball (they won yesterday in North Carolina and play again in a few hours), or my sister’s new book that’s just been published (I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements!), or some other light and joyous aspect of my life right now. It’s not like there’s any dearth of those things, you know.

And yet here I am, drawn to write about how I spent part of yesterday with people I’ve known for more than fifty years, as we bid farewell to a sweet and gentle friend whose pain in recent times must have been profound. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she chose to treat it unconventionally, even though by its early detection it could probably have been cured by traditional therapies. Worse (from my point of view), she didn’t tell anyone, not even her lifelong best friend, someone so close to her they appear in each other’s childhood photos and home movies as if they are sisters. Her death was a surprise, a shock, leaving us rending our hearts. Why hadn’t we called? Why hadn’t we known? Why hadn’t we done something?

Our friend had never married and never left her childhood home. The funeral took place in the church of the parish we all grew up in. We’d been through eight years of grade school together, four years of high school. We’d made our First Communion there, been confirmed there, participated in May processions together (she was the May Queen the year we were in eighth grade), eaten pizza together in the basement on Saturday nights.

About a dozen of us who still keep in touch gathered on the steps outside and went in to sit together. We remembered that our friend hadn’t been to our parish reunion picnic in September. And she hadn’t come to my Christmas party nor even sent a card this year. The last time most of us had seen her was at a reunion event in the fall of 2004. She’d had to be cajoled to come to that, but someone remembered how she looked on the video, happy, enjoying herself.

It was the traditional Catholic Mass for the Dead. We old friends are all people of faith, still or again. Most of us maintain some level of connection with the faith we grew up in, from the one who is the president of that parish’s council to me, whose membership in a Lutheran congregation makes me something of a stranger in a familiar land. And maybe we all understand something different about salvation and faith, about the afterlife and the feast to come, and that’s all right. We know all the words to all the songs, and there is something extremely powerful about holding the hand, on one side, of a decorated combat veteran who is weeping and, on the other, that of the girl you smoked your first cigarette with while you say the Memorare, our departed friend’s favorite prayer.

But more than anything, Buechner’s character Godric observes,  I think we wept for us, and so is it ever with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall.

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