By Donald Schell
In the six weeks since my dad died, my mind has been wandering a lot. I read the newspaper or an email and think about emptiness and wonder about death. I hear a disturbing piece of national or global news and by some crazy logic of faith or hope, I remember my dad’s death, and feel sorrow for others’ suffering and the uncertainties we face, and then I’m moved to gratitude that we’re all alive and in it together. I try to write something (like this) and sooner or later the act of reflection and listening reminds me of something about him.
When I quit being irritated with myself for being so unfocused, I notice that raw edge of my consciousness feels oddly open to contemplation these days. Driving home to San Francisco after my first visit with mother after dad’s death, dazzling sunlight on the trees and the glistening waters of Crystal Springs Reservoir shone with life like I felt when I was newly and deeply in love thirty-four years before. Each sweet inhalation of breath surged with the contradiction of being alive with my father newly dead.
My mind seems awake, but it goes where it will. This attention that isn’t mine feels full of contradiction. If I try to direct attention, it stays bound to something else, something that continues the grieving.
I’ve been thinking again how much grieving shaped my life even from my birth. I was born in 1947, about three years after my parent’s marriage. In those years of their beginning my mother’s father died of a heart attack and her brother, a B-24 pilot was lost in action over Taiwan, the remains of her brother and his crew finally found months later. My parents faced all that as they lived through not knowing whether my dad, also a bomber pilot would return from daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories. And when I was born my dad was twenty-five and my mother all of twenty-two.
It took my mother a quarter century to discover how completely her devastating losses had closed her down. My dad’s steady love for us (for mother, for me and my sisters and brother) carried her and all of us through until her suicidal crisis finally got her started with a good therapist. Until then she’d walked a bitter road cherishing the unpredictable breaks in her deep depression and fending off Christian friends from our church who told her she was just suffering a crisis of faith. With the therapist’s help she found her buried grief and learned to trust grief’s logic and let it take its course. Grieving gave her back her life.
Mother led the way and was our teacher in grieving, and we’re reminding her of it now. I have to remind myself that it’s all right that I’m moved by the radiant beauty of a stand of trees on a hillside, and tell myself not to be surprised when next morning I’m barely muster the strength and resolve to get out of bed. I’m trusting that the Spirit, Life, and the Lord Jesus are in both the radiance and the weariness.
Three books have made a difference to me, and each, in its way, was a gift. Some months before dad’s death my wife Ellen was reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Mother had given it to Ellen because Didion’s account of the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, touched her so deeply. Sometimes as Ellen read herself to sleep she wept and sometimes wanted to be held because Joan Didion spoke so plainly and uncompromisingly of loss.
As soon as Ellen had finished the book I read it. Joan Didion is an agnostic Episcopalian, someone who counts on a Prayer Book funeral at New York’s Cathedral St. John the Divine and Sunday liturgy to order her chaos and darkness, but who also firmly insists that there’s no eye on the sparrow. What she called ‘magical thinking’ in her title was another kind of ritual, her carefully avoiding markers of loss – not reading the obituary, not giving away her husband’s clothes and shoes as though he could come back to wear them. She watched herself hoping (against her own reason) that avoiding these markers would stop her loss.
Re-reading one of Dunne’s novels after his death, she wondered whether in his sudden massive heart attack, he himself felt what he’d written for a character - ‘a moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark.’ Oddly I found these stark words another gift. And I was grateful she also told of the unseasonal fear as their daughter Quintana moved in and out of coma for months after her Dunne’s death. I thought of Didion’s book when I got the phone call that my dad had died.
On my flight home to California, my physician seat companion told me about his cousin’s new book about faith. His cousin the rabbi had debated Christopher Hitchins and the book took on the new atheists, but there was more to it. My seatmate would be seeing his cousin this trip, so he’d gotten himself a copy of the book. When he learned I was a priest, he asked if I’d read the author’s preface and tell him what I thought of it.
The book was Rabbi David Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters. I read the preface and three more chapters as we flew west, and I felt grateful to read the rabbi’s words the day my father had died. I wanted to remember why faith matters and he could tell me. My seatmate asked me to write his cousin a note about it, and then he gave me the book. I finished it the next day.
David Wolpe nearly lost his wife to cancer after their child was born, and then he suffered a brain tumor (benign) and a bout of melanoma (in remission after chemotherapy). Rabbi Wolpe tells his congregation, ‘Actually, we’re all in remission. Some of us just know it more clearly than others.’
David Wolpe writes reasonably and intelligently about faith – not specifically Christian faith (though he writes of our faith appreciatively) but a more generic monotheism that continues to trust some larger good than ourselves even when it refuses to prove it’s there. My busy pastor’s mind thought, ‘This would be a really good book for an inquirer’s group,’ but my heart was moved by it and touched unexpectedly. I took courage from David Wolpe’s courage in continuing to love and serve a God of compassion. Sometimes ‘my faith’ isn’t good enough to carry me through, but our faith is.
Each weekday morning Ellen and I read Morning Prayer together. I bring her tea in bed and we read (and talk about) the appointed readings. For our Psalter we’ve using Robert Alter’s stark, meticulous The Book of Psalms, a Translation with Commentary. Often we read Alter’s notes. He observes repeatedly that when a psalm says, ‘the dead do not praise you,’ that the writer means that is an abyss, a darkness. Writers of the psalms asserted that there was nothing or barely anything left of the person after death. Just silence and darkness without any lively intention to praise God.
One morning after my dad’s death, Ellen said that she was grateful that psalms said so plainly that death was death. It matched her experience of seeing my dad laid out on the floor after the paramedics had stopped CPR. He was gone. There was his body, but the life we’d known in that body, the man we’d loved was gone.
Now we’ve got his ashes in a closet in our house waiting the building of a memorial garden in my parents’ church. And dad’s not in our closet. It’s his ashes.
I was trying to understand (for whatever understanding is worth) why Didion, Alter, and Wolpe’s stark courage touched me, why ‘he suffered death and was buried’ is the part of the Nicene Creed that’s touching me most deeply righty now, and why, missing my dad as I do and appreciating in a thousand new ways how much he gave me through my lifetime, I’m determined to say that he’s gone. When people say, ‘Harold’s gone to a better place,’ I welcome their intended kindness, but also feel myself shut down at this vague ‘better place.’
Just last week talking to an old friend about my hunger to spend time with family, to be in the room with living, breathing with flesh descended from dad, to hear our stories and eat together. She said, ‘One dancer’s gone and you all are having to make a new choreography.’ Her words rang true. That image fit what we were doing and feeling.
How do we this ‘faith’ thing? That question is part of what keeps distracting me.
My wife is the real theologian in our family. I read and think about this stuff; she just gets it and tells it to me when I need to hear. Ellen was telling a much-loved priest friend of ours her satisfaction at the finality of death in the psalms, and he said, “Frederick Buechner says, ‘…dead as a doornail,’ and he’s right. Harold’s as dead as a doornail. That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul.”
My beloved theologian was on our friend’s argument like a hound after a rabbit. “’Dead as a doornail’ is just what he was,” she said adamantly. “so tell me about immortality and resurrection.” I needed to hear it too.
Our friend said he’d learned it from Charles Price, his old mentor from Virginia Seminary, and recently it had come up again in a book by John Garvey, Death and the Rest of our Life. As I listened, I wrote down the book title and within two days had gotten Garvey’s book and read it through. Charley Price and John Garvey agree, our hope that we’ve got an ‘immortal soul’ is a power move, claiming something about ourselves, something within us, that we desperately hope the abyss and darkness can’t destroy. A long shot, but a power within us. But Resurrection – Jesus’ and ours – is faith, our trust in God’s unfailing love.
It’s not some irreducible, barely glimpsed idealized essence of my dad that escaped and flew free from the fires of the crematorium. He’s gone, what remains is ash, is dead as a doornail. And the whole of him, the hands I marveled at as a kid when he played Rachmaninoff’s B minor prelude, the face that looked so much like mine and which, in the pictures I’ve got still teaches me to smile, the courageous heart that managed to squeeze almost eighty-seven years of living from a terrifying beginning as a preemie in 1921 and scarlet fever a few years later, the whole of that good man was, is, and will be held in God’s love. I don’t know what it means or looks like but I trust it - God’s initiative, God’s creative embrace that won’t let one vibration of one atom that was him out of the old/new whole of God’s making.
The Gospel writers are so determined that it’s God’s initiative that their preferred language for Jesus’ resurrection is that the Father “raised him up.”
The darkness, the abandonment, the devastation and decay and knowledge that we’re all just in remission and each of us alone faces a ‘moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark’ must sink in, take hold, and be bitterly true. We’re none of us going to make out of this alive. None of us and nothing in us is any match for death. Nothing except the love of God.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago, and contributed to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project), "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space."