I close my eyes and say: I sat with a friend not long ago who had lost the dearest person to him in all this world. He held up her life like a brilliant jewel for us to remember and to marvel at, but it faded at his very touch, and I saw the stark terror showing in his eyes as the loss and loneliness instantly leaped ravening for his throat. Cast around in my memory for things to share, held up a Christian mask or two to try to make it look like I cared more, ransacked my psyche for feelings to visibly succumb to, asked him questions to try to gain his perspective, tried to offer the comfort that she is with You now, tried to mop up the mess as his heart bled out all over the black-and-white tiled floor at the little diner where we were sitting, and failed really miserably. I love him. I am so heartbroken over the conversation, I don’t know what to do. Why could I not enter into his sorrow?
He says: You could not share his sadness because it happened in a place you cannot go to.
I was not there when she died. But he told me about it, I say.
He shakes his head: That is not what I mean. Even if you had been standing there you would not know what he is feeling in his heart right now.
He looks out into the distance, as though across aeons of space and time.
Do you remember the first hound of Hell that ever pursued your heart? He says slowly, His face drawn with pain now.
I say: Of course I d-
It is a warm summer night in the early 1980s in rural Virginia
It is so early in my memory that most of it is fluid, not static, in my mind
But there is nothing tranquil about that fluid. It is a vicious, torrential current that still holds utter dread for me
I am sitting on the couch looking at the television, a little boy with legs so short that my feet kick against the side of the cushion
The screen door creaks in the soft wind, and the smell of cigars and smoky whiskey drifts through the old farmhouse
The sound of men’s laughter carries from the front porch. Someday I will be where they are, standing with my legs apart and a pipe clenched between my teeth, holding forth on important topics with confidence
But the movie I am watching has me gripped in a trance. My dad was a faithful Christian man of good judgment, but what he was thinking that night, I will never know. Maybe he did not know what show was on
Although it has been almost 35 years now, I could still probably draw you a pencil sketch of exactly what I saw on the screen, as it has been etched indelibly on my soul
A man and a woman struggling over a gun, he is cursing volubly, she is terrified and trying to get away, the air of the old black-and-white movie shot through with a crimson hatred that was palpable to me
The man strikes her heavily and she cries out, and in the split second when she is off-balance, he pushes her into the burning fireplace. I will hear her dying scream off and on for the rest of my life, usually in nightmares
As I grow older it will not derail me so badly when it recurs. But for the next five or 10 years I will cry out (into my pillow, so nobody hears), “No! Not this time. Please don’t let her die. Please-“
His hand is on my shoulder, a comforting nearness that is the only thing calming my heaving sobs. Gradually it slows, and I look up at Him, wiping my face with my sleeve.
I’m sorry, I say.
For what? He seems surprised. You need to do that more often.
Trying to regain my composure, I mutter: Not sure I could handle that.
You say that like it’s a bad thing. What hurt you the most about that memory? He asks tenderly.
I look at Him: You know that’s not a fair question, I say.
I say: Ok then, what hurt most was not really watching the violence.
I say: And it was not really even seeing it happen again in my dreams.
He is still waiting.
I say: What hurt most was what it did to me, and to someone I love. I promised myself somewhere along the way that I would never let anything like that happen to a woman again.
Your save-the-girl complex? He says.
If you want to get all Freudian, yes. I pause: But even that was not the bottom.
The bottom was when I saw that scene from the movie happening to someone I loved more than my own self, and when I tried to help her, I found that I myself was the man threatening her life. There was no gun, there was no cursing, there was no fire, I never laid a hand on her: but in my heart I was that man.
He says: Yes, that was the bottom. He looks into my eyes. I was there when you watched that movie.
He says: I was there when you struggled with the agony of seeing it happen over and over again.
I know that now, I say.
He says: And I was there when you hit the bottom. When you looked into the darkness and it looked back at you, and there was nowhere for you to go. I was there. I knew the depth of your grief in that moment. I wept over your pain and loss, I held you when you gave up hope and collapsed, and I bore in you the impossibility of getting up the next morning and trying to face a callous world full of people who would never understand your sorrow.
I did not know that, I say in wonder. How did you do that?
He says: Because my Spirit was in you, leading you into righteous repentance, showing you the truth about your heart, leading you out of that darkness into a new life of confession and holiness. I know that better than you do, for it happened in a place in your heart that nobody but I will ever be able to touch.
I cannot speak. All I can do is look at Him and feel.
He smiles and moves toward me, and the faintest first prescient hint of the leaves of the Tree for the healing of the nations is wrapped around me in his warm embrace.
Are you to the place yet where you are thankful for what happened to you? He says.
I think I will be, I answer slowly. If I can share it with someone who will be blessed by it.
You will. His voice is fading into the light now.
And you probably won’t be able to handle it. He is laughing again, but there is a mighty comfort in His joy.
He calls out: Do you know now why you were not able to help your friend?
I say: Because he did not need my help; he could only get that from You. Instead of trying to mop up His mess I should have just sat there with him and spoken Your name.
Good, He says. Remember what I told you.
Blessed are those who mourn.
For they shall be comforted, I murmur, and head for the diner.
Photo credit: S. Naukri