My sweet friend Connie died Saturday. I’ve known Connie longer than either of us have known our husbands. Connie was the first friend I made after relocating to Oregon from Georgia. We met at Metropolitan Baptist Church.
It was an odd church, tucked up on the hillside overlooking the Beaverton/Hillsdale Highway. I don’t even know how it was I first came to attend that church. I probably looked it up in the Yellow Pages. (Ask a history teacher, they can explain the reference.) Knowing me the way I do, I probably turned to the “Church” section and looked until I found the only Southern Baptist Church in the Greater Portland region.
Mrs. Geri Moore introduced us. Mrs. Moore was our Sunday School teacher. She and Connie both had red hair, though Connie’s was natural and Mrs. Moore’s came from a bottle. I think she hooked us up because she was hoping some of Connie’s mannerly ways would rub off my rough corners.
It never happened. That Connie and I were friends at all befuddled many a person. As her eldest son once said, “I can’t believe my mother is friends with you.”
I wasn’t offended. I completely understood the incongruity of a girl raised up rightly in Portland’s West Hills friending a girl who was so clearly trailer trash, but friend me she did.
You don’t give it much thought, really, the way a good friendship evolves. One minute you’re the bridesmaid at her wedding and lickety-quick just like that you are preparing to speak at her funeral.
I hate death. Hate everything about it. I am no scholar, but I think it’s safe to assume that I know as much about what happens to folks in the hereafter as any other theologian holding forth over a brew. Fact is, at least I have come to these conclusions in a wide-eyed sober-minded fashion. I don’t drink beer.
As a girl who came to grief early in life, I’ve pondered these matters for decades. I read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book on dying when I was a freshman in college. I identified with the stages of grief. I was stuck in the anger stage for way too long. I longed to be free like the bird in the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Connie had a roommate at OSU who chose a seagull pattern to decorate her room at the Kappa house. Every time I saw that room I thought of that silly book.
I once interviewed Jerry Sittser, a professor at Whitworth College in Spokane. The good professor lost his mother, his wife and his 4-year old daughter in a head-on collision. I don’t know how to grieve the loss of one person that I love, much less three of them, but I remember he told me, “I lost my past, my present and my future.” He wrote an excellent book on grief titled “A Grace Disguised.”
But the best book I’ve ever read on grief remains “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken. I first read it when Tim and I started dating back in the 1970s (Ask a librarian. They can steer you to the Time/Life Magazines). Tim has long been a C.S. Lewis fan. I started reading Lewis because Tim read Lewis. It was easier than taking up basketball because Tim played it.
It’s a story of a widower’s grief. Sheldon’s wife, Davy, died from a liver problem, the source of which doctors never identified. I intended to name my youngest girl Davy after my father and after the Davy in Vanauken’s book. Now I’m glad I named her after my good friend Connie.
Vanauken says that grief is a form of love — the longing for the dear face, the warm hand.
“It is not the grief that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss.”
Grief, he adds, acts as a shield against the void.
It’s that void, that separation, that causes us such unyielding pain. That’s why we can go years and not weep over the death of a loved one but then something will happen — you get a whiff of Dove soap and it reminds you of standing at the sink in Granny’s house washing your hands and the comfort of knowing she was in the next room, that you could run to her for a hug if you wanted and then you realize Granny is gone and it’s been decades since you’ve been able to bury yourself in her arms — that’s when the tears rush forth.
God never intended us to live in separation from Him or from each other. God is a Creator, not a Destroyer. Death is not his tool. It is his enemy. It says so, right there in the Word: “The last enemy that shall be conquered is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:26
I don’t know how that could be any clearer.
The victory of the Christian faith is that it offers us the hope of stepping over that chasm into the presence of Christ and our loved ones again someday.
It does not erase the aching or loneliness that we have in the here and now. It simply fills us with an eagerness for what the future holds. A world without separation.
If we could somehow realize that we are living in parallel times, sort of like those talked about in that book “A Wrinkle in Time”, we would understand that while we can’t run to our granny’s bosom any more, that doesn’t mean she isn’t present and maybe longing for the same thing herself.
Vanauken and C.S. Lewis discuss this notion in his book. That perhaps the dead go through their own grieving. I know that will bother those people who think Heaven as one big party-house, but I don’t see how a loving God wouldn’t weep over some of the things he’s privvy to. Of course, God weeps. Of course, there’s crying in heaven. There has to be. What else would mercy be but a recognition of the pain of another and a desire to embrace them in that moment?
I came to the conclusion years ago that going to heaven is like going off to college. Everyone feels fortunate to have gotten in. They realize what a costly admittance price was paid on their behalf. They are so excited for the opportunity to learn new things, make new friends, to study history and science and every other form of knowledge they’ve ever wanted to know about.
But sometimes in the early evening or first thing in the morning, or particularly on their birthdays, they realize how much they miss everyone back at home. So they call their mamas, or their girlfriends, or a favorite teacher, just to talk.
It’s a moment of melancholy. They are thrilled for the new adventure and no way would they pass up the opportunity to be where they are at. Heck no. The adventure is way too great. But still, there’s that separation. That recognition of the distance between them and the people they love.
C.S. Lewis told Vanauken, “It is remarkable (I have experienced it) that sense that the dead person is. And also, I have felt, is active: can sometimes do more for you now than before — as if God gave them, as a kind of birthday present on arrival, some great blessing to the beloved they have left behind.”
It bugs me that so many of my friends have left me for Heaven’s campus. But I get the benefit of having them look out after me. I know they are scheming up some great adventures and learning all sorts of new things that they will undoubtedly share with me.
That doesn’t diminish the ache I have for the adventures we are missing out on in the here and now. But I am eager to see the ways in which they reveal their presence to me in the days, weeks and years to come.
Meanwhile, I’m still stuck here in high school with the rest of you delinquents.