“Oh hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.”
I learned last Friday that “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” is the hymn of the US navy. Sitting at D.’s funeral, the soloist sang the refrain with quiet emotion as our eyes traced the lines of D.’s naval uniform jacket hanging pristinely next to his casket, the American flag draped solemnly across the casket’s length. Because just a few days prior D. had walked out of the sanctuary after worship, a chuckle in his heart, I needed the casket to be there. Loss made manifest. A finality that puts a period on the fluid meaning of one’s life. I did not need to see the body–I do not particularly care for the waxiness of embalming. Many people need to see the body to believe death real, but for this death, the casket was enough.
I needed the casket and I needed story. Although only encompassing a small fraction of D.’s existence I needed the eulogies that present a life in it’s best possible version. As a Christian, I then needed the Gospel story that puts our small “s” stories into perspective. I am wont to say that we become the stories we tell ourselves, but we are saved by the story that God tells us.
My mind flitted back to Marilynne Robinson’s Homewhich has been a companion to me for the past week or so. Robinson writes such that I must slow down, which at first makes me impatient but in the end rewards me by allowing me to know characters well enough that their transformation or lack of surprises and unnerves me. I thought of Glory and her tears. She is the youngest daughter in the Boughton family who returns home to the small town of Gilead, IA to care for her ailing father, a retired Prebyterian minister. She cries in anger, she cries in surprise, she cries in fear, she cries in joy…Her tears offer her release and a way to be present to the moment. She writes of water:
“Then Glory had seen the place as if it were the kind of memory a woman might wish for her child, and it was exactly that, the river broad and shallow, the intricacies of its bed making rivulets of the slow water, bloom on the larger little islands and butterflies everywhere. And the trees meeting high above it, shading it, making the bottom earthily apparent whereever there was calm. They all loved the river, in all generations. Jack, too. She bent and dipped her hands in the water and pressed them to her face, to conceal the embarassment of tears, but more than that, because the river was simply manifest, a truth too seldom aknowledged…” (283-4)
When the wife of her brother, the prodigal Jack, arrives unexpectedly, she offers a picture of the river to Jack’s young son. As she beholds the radical and socially unacceptable presence of her brother’s wife and child, she understands the stories of home that must have been told to this boy and that in order to redeem her brother, she must carry on the story for him.
“Maybe this Robert will come back someday…What of Jack will there be in him? And I will be almost old. I will see him standing in the road by the oak tree and I will know him by his tall man’s slouch, the hands on the hips…He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backwards a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still here, yes, the lilacs, even the part about the petunias. This was my father’s house. And I will think, he is young, He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment.
That he has answered his father’s prayers.
The Lord is wonderful.” (324-5)
Petunias. The River. A casket. Life and loss made manifest.