written by Mary Thorpe
Some of us have suffered the loss of dear ones in this pandemic. The loss may have been made even more piercing because we were unable to be at the bedside of those dear ones as they were released from earthly life, or because we were unable to join together for a memorial service.
In the obituaries today, the number of listings that said “a celebration of life will occur when the pandemic is over” greatly outnumbered ones with the usual date and time of a service or an interment. As if even death, and its attendant grief, would be put on hold.
But we know it is not so. The grief, sharp-edged as a scalpel, cuts us, and causes us to turn into modern-day psalmists, crying out our lamentations in our pain.
The other day I drove down our street, hurrying from a doctor’s appointment to the relative safety of my hermit-life these days at home. The night before, a powerful storm brought winds that shook the walls of my sturdy brick house, my fortress, my isolation chamber. With each relentless wave of wind I sent up a prayer for safety, most particularly of those who had to be out in the storm. The essential workers, the people with no roof over their head, the night wanderers. “Let them be safe, Lord.”
And most everyone I knew rose again in the morning, safe.
But when I drove down that street, something had not survived the storm. A huge oak tree, so large that my arms would not have been able to encircle it, uprooted, the root ball ripped from the earth nearly seven feet in diameter. A gorgeous tree that had shaded a house for more than five generations. It was done for, and as I drove by, I saw the arborists coming to break it down into manageable pieces so that it could be carted off. You could see that there was rot at its core – it was robust when standing upright, at least to our eyes, but was slowly, relentlessly, being eaten away on the inside. And so it was vulnerable, and ready to be plucked by a bullying wind. Tossed over as if it were balsa instead of oak.
We are witnesses to that ending, sometimes gentle, sometimes violent, to trees and to those whom we love and admire, and to those we never knew but who affected our lives in some way, be they Supreme Court Justices or the great-grandmother who wrestled with death from COVID-19. We see the exterior strength. We mourn the weakening at the core.
We are witnesses and we remember.
Each one of us shares that fate, that weakening at the core that reminds us that earthly life is not forever. But one of the things we know about oak trees is that they drop acorns. Those acorns, a thumbnail’s worth of potentiality, may sprout in the soil beneath the tree that generated them. More likely, though, that acorn will find new life in other soil, carried there by the rains or an animal. And the memory of the tree that dropped the acorn is encoded in its genome. Not a memory such as the ones we humans cherish, but the “tree-ness” of it, a gift from Creator God who made trees and said “this is good.”
The memory of those we lose in this season of loss carry the encoding of who they were, how they were, what we learned from them. Another gift from Creator God, this human memory: it is not only words, but picture, scent, sound. I cannot smell the scent of a rose without thinking of an aunt who grew roses in her postage stamp of a front yard. I cannot hear Sarastro’s Act 2 aria from “The Magic Flute” without remembering a university production in which I sang a minor role. I cannot see my wedding ring without seeing the fingers of my spouse putting on my shaking finger on my wedding day.
And so the tree falls. The beloved dies. The earthly form is gone, and yet something, some little thing, a sprout of a new oak, a laugh from a grandchild that echoes the timbre of his grandfather’s, reminds us that nothing is forever but everything is forever. Our lives are eternal, in ways we cannot comprehend. For that, thanks be to God, who gives life and then gives it again.
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The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Virginia. She is an iconographer, musician, learner of new things, wife, mother and grandmother. Right now she does these things on her sunporch, her office during this time of pandemic. Her book “On the Emmaus Road: A Guide to Transitions in Ordained Leadership” will be published by Church Publishing in November, 2020.