Suburban Diarist: Valley of the Shadow

(Note: I wrote this in April, 2010)

Last week I made my standing Eastertide visit to Michael’s grave. He was a year behind me at Deep Springs–a good gardener, an excellent guitarist, and a generally unkempt fellow. We threw an impromptu concert, complete with a rendition of ‘Pale Blue Eyes,’ on a night when I was about as low as I could remember being. A few months later, in fairer weather, we busted out a ferocious two-guitar version of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’ for the Springers and townies alike. He had a guitar like the ones Santana plays, with a big smooth tone that complemented my stinging, metallic Telecaster quite nicely I thought. One night someone asked him if he was a Christian. Even the question was kind of shocking to me at the time–we were far too tolerant and advanced to imagine Christianity in the student body back then. “I don’t know,” Michael said. More shock. I treasure that moment. Sometimes doubt is as helpful–more helpful–as a witness than fully convinced faith.

The September after I graduated, Michael died in the valley in a tractor accident. We descended on the Chicago suburbs and stood around broken with grief as he was laid to rest. Almost eight years later I moved practically across the street from the graveyard, on a stretch of road that had felt back then like the edge of the world. I try to visit him at Easter, because remembering the blessed dead is not a morbid exercise but, in a very muffled register, a joyful one. His plot is always adorned with flowers, an enclosed candle, a pot for incense. Ornaments and mementos hang from the tree–this year I noticed a can of Guinness. It’s as good a place as any to smolder away, as Marilynne Robinson put it, awaiting the general incandescence.

A few days later one of my old classmates lost his father. I knew him about as well as you can know a man considerably your senior whom you meet on perhaps a half-dozen occasions (most lasting several days, to be fair). He brought Lucinda Williams to Deep Springs, for which I will always be grateful. A gentle man, he always managed to sound bemused. He loved his family and he loved his son’s friends, throwing his home quite unaccountably open to us on a number of memorable occasions. Those of us who enjoyed his hospitality and knew his son grasped that his patience was glacial.

Some of us are getting together to share grief and memories, and suddenly the prospect of it carries me back to Deep Springs and the stupid things we all did and managed to survive–all but one of us, anyway. I shudder to think about them, the face craned out of a sunroof, plastered onto the windshield; the tractor ridden straight into the irrigation ditch; the sprint through a frantic kitchen, inches away from a bare knife. Life is so ridiculously fragile, beset with so many dangers, and it is a particular cruelty of our nature that we most easily ignore them when they threaten most horribly. The more we do, the less we are defined by what we have left undone. The more of this life we embrace, the less cause we have to grumble when we are called out of it. Husband, father, pastor, citizen, grandfather…the prospect of our own death slips inevitably from monstrous to untimely to hasty to expected.

And yet now, having known the consolations of a loving marriage, pursued the full course of my formal education, tasted the vocations that define my life, and treasured the unspeakable joy of fathering a child, the prospect of a parting sometimes fills me with far greater bitterness than it did back when my life was still a blank canvass. I’ve had to explain to skeptics that when Paul says, rhetorically, “where grave is thy victory; where O death is thy sting?” he is referring to the final resurrection, not to our own mind here and now. Here and now the grave wins its victory and death inflicts a palpable sting, to those who leave too soon and to those who are left. Yet youth is perhaps innocent even of this. There is something tempting about eternity when you are in the desert mountains, where the multitude of stars makes that leap across the line curiously plausible, and almost delightful the thought of carrying with you the last memory of sagebrush on the night air crisp even in summer, though all the world should be trying to grasp you back.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O God, and let light perpetual shine upon them. Amen.

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