Friday, October 03, 2008

Comfort in Constellations

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:3-5

Two brothers have died this week. Not mine. But still.

One man was the brother of a friend. The other a brother of the father of a friend’s child.

I hate hearing the stories: Cancer. Car accidents. I hate knowing that somebody I know or love is at all feeling anything like what I’ve been feeling. That they have possibly just entered one of the most f$%@#-up twilight zones of existence one could enter. But death is nothing new, I tell myself, aghast at my former state of naiveté. Death is everywhere! People are dying all the time—as often as people are being born. If you don’t want a baby, you may not notice the rate at which they happen. And if nobody you love dies, you may not notice how many people disappear.

Since my brother died, I learned that many people I know have lost a brother. In my church there are a handful I know of. When we gather, I map them out like a constellation in the room. In the presence of one of these stars, I might cry without warning.

I went to one brother’s visitation today and talked to my friend. I did not know his brother, but while I was there I learned the brother was an Obama fan. He worked at the Co-op that I frequent. I might have joked with him while he bagged my groceries. There are pictures of him on his bicycle, loaded down with backpacks and road tripping gear. He’s got big shaggy chops and chin length hair. He looks like a righteous hippie. I like my friend’s brother instantly, even though he’s dead.

The weight of a life lost slams against me. I try to keep the tears just in my eyes and not rolling down my face while I’m actually talking to my friend. I leave the funeral home, shoulders shaking in the parking lot, knowing full well I’m projecting. In a year, you won’t respond like this, I self-talk. (People tell me, wait a year, like July 15, 2009 is magical. On that day, my last few droplets of grief will trickle away.) And then I talk at my brother, or the memory of him. Darn it. This feels like losing you all over again.

Sometimes when I cry, I indict Jesus. I put him on trial. Did you not say that those who mourn would be comforted? It’s really the best indictment I can give these days. I’m past the Mary and Martha lines (Well, Jesus, if you’d been here, my brother'd still be alive). My brother’s dead. He’s not coming back. So, Jesus, what can you do for the living? I arch my eyebrows at him. I beckon and gesture for him to get with the program. One order of comfort, please. Oh, dear, I’m mixing theater and restaurant metaphors. But you get the idea.

The thing is that once in a while, even when I arch my eyebrows at him in a not-so-friendly way, I feel this transcendent warm feeling creep all over me. And then, all my snarkiness turns into plain old miserable, can’t-escape-from-it sorrow. But it feels like somebody’s there to keep me company and say there, there.

It’s sort of like that with the constellation of brotherless people I was talking about. Sometimes their very presence is a there, there of sorts, although mostly I like to talk to them and hear their stories. I like to think it was a brilliant moment for Paul when he identified this link between human grief, God's comfort, and community. I want to believe he’s right on, that it's one of the few redemptive things about the process: Sometimes we're the receipient of a small, sweet cup of lemonade. Other times, we're serving it up.

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