April 20, 2006

A Walk to Remember

1511 page25 capNOW FELL LIKE CRYSTALLIZED TEARS.  Large flakes drifted down, down, down to add their minuscule beings to already large drifts. I felt my own tears drop into an ocean full of the grief of loss. My bare hand squeezed Mama’s gloved one tighter, and my feet continued to move mechanically over the plowed ground. Friends and family walked behind, some carrying shovels or flowers. The pickup with Granddad’s casket came last.
South of us the gray skeletons of fruit trees formed stark silhouettes against the gray horizon. The field stretched north to cedar and ponderosa pine, and mountain peaks rose above the treetops.
Our procession followed the path, bordered by snowdrifts, over a little hill and down a short way to the plank-covered hole. This moment had been anticipated since Thanksgiving, and an uncle had dug the grave before the ground froze. Now the pallbearers cautiously lowered the pine box to its resting place.
The wind blew harder, and the snow pitted my face. I stood alone and tried not to think of my granddad lying in his new overalls and worn work boots, red handkerchief in hand, cap in place, motionless, lifeless. His last spring planting--in February. The simple funeral service was really the interment of a seed, leaving it to await the resurrection when new, perfect life will burst forth. But, as shovelfuls of dirt fell onto the coffin, the promise of harvest seemed an eternity away.
Granddad deserved a rest. He had struggled with the land for years and then with cancer for those last painful months. But saying goodbye is always hard. 
Exactly one month later I found myself walking another path to a new grave. Only this time the road was paved and palm trees reached imploringly toward a Belizean blue sky. All the weight of dense, humid air settled on my heart. Half a dozen little children sat on the tailgate of the pickup leading the procession, looking unusually somber, mature beyond their years. They glanced occasionally at the tiny coffin in the truck bed. Death was nothing new to them.
1511 page25The father of the dead baby walked stoically alone, seeming vulnerable and confused. My heart went out to him, knowing this was not the first child he had lost. The hysterical mother remained at the church with some friends. I shivered in spite of the heat, and slipped my arm through my friend’s. We walked close in silence.
It must have taken us more than an hour to reach the grave site. The large group pressed together around the pastor and family as 10-month-old Shamira was gently placed on top of her sister’s grave. (In Belize they stack the graves to save money and space.) A little girl who had regularly attended our children’s meetings reached for my hand and pointed to a spot close by. “That’s where my brother is buried,” she whispered. I cried then. Not just for the Sutherlands and this grieving sister, but for myself as well. The people around me sang “Shall We Gather at the River,” and I was in that Colorado valley again as I watched them bury Granddad. The melody was hopeful, but I heard it as a question. “Shall we . . . ?”
In a world where morphine will not erase the aches of an old man and doctors cannot find a cure for a sick baby, is there a healing, a beauty, a river of grace to wash the tears away? Is there a place of gathering, of forever home and togetherness and no goodbyes? We walk this earth with only a cemetery at the end of the road. I am tired of journeying the predictable, morbid path. It seems I’m going in circles, finding myself facing death at every turn. The questions and my fragment of hope cease to exist with one more name in the obituaries. And then I remember someone else’s walk . . .
The smothering, silent darkness of Friday afternoon had lifted with the Sabbath dawn. This morning was no different, filled with the amber and purple shadows just before sunrise and the birdsong music of a night ended, a day about to begin. “Don’t they know?” she wondered. Their jubilant praise seemed a mockery of the horrible reality, a strange backdrop to the Kaddish still repeating monotonously in her heart. She could have been saying the prayer for the dead for herself; that’s how she felt--shrouded in the same linens they had wrapped Him in two days before.
She was coming to say goodbye, to anoint the precious body one last time. But it really wouldn’t be goodbye, for she felt as if she already lay beside Him in the sealed tomb. A thick fog of hopelessness enveloped the soul once as effervescent in its adoration as the birds. She hadn’t cried, even at the cross--her emotions seemed lifeless--but her shoulders shook, and each breath was a desperate gasp.
Mary Magdalene walked on, oblivious to the flowers emitting a gentle perfume with each crushing step. As she neared the tomb, her feet slowed, reluctant to reach their destination. Head bowed, Mary didn’t notice the open entrance until she was almost inside the cave. Panic seized her as she saw that only the burial linens remained, folded neatly and placed to the side. Mary turned and ran--eyes wide, hair streaming, heart pounding. And, as I inquire it, Peter caught her just as she stumbled over a protruding rock. “They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and I don’t know where they have put Him!” she screamed.
Strong fisherman arms couldn’t restrain the flailing limbs. Mary broke away. Echoes of her anger reverberated in the still air as she disappeared down a different path and the disciples hurried on to the tomb.
Adrenaline abated, and Mary found herself lost in the maze of graves and trees. The path circled back, and suddenly she was facing the empty tomb again. Now the flood came, a torrent of tears that left clean tracks down dusty cheeks. Through misty eyes Mary saw two angels at each end of the bench where Jesus had lain. “Why are you crying?” they asked.
1511 page25This time, pervaded with a quiet resignation, she whispered, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where to find Him.”
Another voice, at once familiar and foreign, repeated the question. Mary turned and saw another man, perhaps the gardener. “Whom are you looking for?” he probed.
Contrite, submissive now, Mary pleaded with tears still streaming, “Sir, if you have taken Him away, tell me where you have put Him, and I will go and get Him.”
“Mary!” Jesus said.
With that word the sun peeked over the eastern hill, illuminating His face and Mary’s heart.
Remembering gives me the courage to dream, to believe. I imagine one more walk--my very last (after that I’ll fly!). . . .
An infinity of space and light stretched in every direction--ahead, behind, above, below. The only reason I knew I was on a path was that I was following and being followed. Faces of people I somehow knew and yet had never met surrounded me in a happy collage of reunions. But it was like one of those strange summer afternoons when the sun is shining and rain is falling. I could almost see the rainbows in each tear, so joyful was the shower of feeling--smile-light refracted through liquid crystals.
And as we walked, with each step bringing us nearer that place of forever life, Jesus came toward us, down a stardust aisle. At each shining face He paused and touched away the moisture, leaving a purer white light behind. When He reached me, I realized that I too had been crying. His hands cupped my face as His thumbs caressed my cheeks. Then with damp fingers He took my hand and placed it in Granddad’s--soft and strong, no longer calloused and wrinkled.
I turned to watch as He moved on, as He gave two little girls back to their mommy and daddy. Someone ahead gave a joyful shout, and I looked away from the family to see the city, a tiny speck growing rapidly until we were suddenly there, walking through the brilliant gate. A sound of happiest, wordless music drew me down the street to the shore of the river. There the flowing song of Living Water buried a white-robed crowd in its waves. And we came up singing, breathing the air of heaven.
Joelle Chase is a junior at Andrews University, pursuing a degree in elementary education. She takes long walks through the orchards near her home while dreaming of teaching children in developing countries.