Hearts are Breaking

I haven't blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because travelling disrupts both one's schedule and one's internet access, but mostly because musing on the trivialities of my life and thought world seemed somehow disrespectful in the face of the great grief of people I love. How can you write about pop culture or academic minutia or Christmas tedium -- I mean tradition -- when people are dying?

Of course, people are always dying. At least part of the front page of the newspaper, more often than not, is given over to death, whether of a reviled ex-dictator or an esteemed ex-president or a high schooler at the wrong place at the wrong time or a family of five who hit an icy patch on a dark highway.

And then there's the reality that we're all dying, all the time. Annie Dillard's words come to mind:

Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Or what could you say to a grieving person that would not enrage by its triviality?

(Of course, this is exactly the mistake many of us make with the grieving -- not knowing what to say, we do even greater harm by saying nothing at all. Which is okay if we're present with the bereaved, but can be cowardly and cruel if it leads us to avoid them.)

When I first read those words of Dillard, my reaction was paralysis: how dare we write in the face of death? But upon re-reading the essay this morning in search of that quote, I found that the thrust is exactly the opposite: how can we but write in the face of death? And yet. And yet...

The ubiquity of death is more immediate to me this Christmas than most, through vicarious grieving. On the third day of Christmas, the day before Holy Innocent's Day, two friends buried siblings after enduring an excruciating period of waiting and not knowing whether the one they loved was living or dead.

In Dallas, Texas, the family of Kelly James, one of the three climbers lost on Mt. Hood earlier in December -- the only one recovered, so far -- laid their son/brother/husband/father/friend to rest. The search effort had been intense, and the families had been in the media limelight as they waited and prayed, as hope turned to resignation and mourning. Kelly's sister-in-law, Carolyn James, kept a blog from Florida to keep praying friends around the world up to date on the search effort, and later, the funeral arrangements.

In suburban Maryland, the family of Jane Park also said their farewells, ending a longer and more uncertain time of searching and praying and wondering. Jane disappeared from the Boston area last May, days before she was to move back home to Maryland. After an initial flurry of searching and public pleading for any leads that might uncover Jane's whereabouts, the trail cooled and the Parks settled into what would be months of unknowing. Jane's body was discovered on December 16, although it took a few days for the definitive identification to be made known. The circumstances of her death and disappearance remain a mystery.

Words fail.

I've been thinking about the slaughter of the Bethlehem infants this Christmas season, as I remember my grieving friends. What are we to make of the senseless deaths embedded right there in our Christmas story? What words of comfort or hope would we dare speak to Rachel crying in Rama, or her present-day counterparts, weeping and refusing to be comforted? In a certain sense, her refusal to be comforted strikes me as precisely the right response -- let us not belittle our loses by putting up the brave face and pretending to be consoled when the inconsolable has happened. Terror and trauma cannot be explained away.

Words fail.

Yet speak (write) we must, even, especially, in the face of death. I cannot but make my meager tribute to the infinitely precious lives that have been cut short, and pray for my friends who travel the valley of the shadow this season of rejoicing. May the God of All Comfort comfort those who are beyond consoling, in His perfect time.


danedy said...

Glad you're back to blogging (as am I, occasionally). This post brought to mind the words at the end of King Lear (which of course, like pretty much all of Bill's tragedies, ends with a LOT of bodies being carried off the stage):

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

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