Saturday, April 18, 2009

They Came to the Tomb, Alleluia

Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, alleluia.
Antiphon from Morning Prayer for Easter Sunday

One evening of a visit to New Orleans during the three years following my father’s death, I was sitting with my mother in front of the television set. Safely settled in her high-back armchair, feet propped on a small ottoman, she might well have been eating her favorite Cheez-Its as she watched one of her programs. Her walker stood next to the chair in the event she needed to lean on it to make her way down the hall to the bathroom.

During evenings of the week-long visits to New Orleans at that time, I invariably attended to her and to television programs with a book from home in my lap. I tried to keep to a courteous minimum my responses to her running commentary on things. I was following advice my father had repeatedly given after those unlucky occasions when I didn’t let particular observations of my mother’s go unchallenged.

Without looking at me or otherwise preparing me, she suddenly asked, “Do you miss your father?”

I did my best to hide stupefaction. I knew something might be happening that I couldn’t remember happening in a long time – my mother might have been expressing a concern about how I was feeling.

I ventured a cautious “Yes, I do.”

“It’s funny, you know,” she responded with a sidelong glance at me, “I don’t.”

At the immediate request of hers that I change the channel so that she could catch the beginning of another of her favorite shows, I felt a combination of relief and sadness. No, she hadn’t been ready to talk with me about how I felt about my father; she was merely moving forward her evening commentary on things in her own life, past and present.

It did not surprise me that my mother would not admit to missing my father. No one watching them over the sixty-plus years of their marriage had ever surprised them in the sharing of earnest confidences or the exchange of hugs and kisses or earnest, passionate reconciliation after a quarrel or misunderstanding. Growing up, my brothers and I had early learned not to understand affection by observing the daily interactions of my parents. We contented ourselves with the rarely spoken assurance that we loved them and that they loved us.

As my brothers and I entered our adult years, however, my mother would more regularly confide in us how difficult life had been with my father over the years. At the same time, a refrain among us about my father began to ascribe to him a saintly status for the years he patiently endured life in the same house with my mother.

Two good people, concerned for their children and faithful to the teachings of their Church, maintained a life together to the end of their lives.

Whatever didn’t happen with my father, whatever interests of hers got neglected or ignored, whatever grievances received no solicitous attention from him, my mother made do. She stopped waiting for the conversations she wanted and settled for the conversations she had. Unhappy though she might be in the kind of relationship she had with my father, the situation was nothing my mother couldn’t live with.

At his wake, though, she refused to do anything other than lightly lay one hand on the shoulder of the sport coat in which my father’s body had been prepared. She claimed not to like the feel of the skin of a person who had died.

I sometimes wonder what my parents’ lives would have been like if they could have admitted to one another that they were not best friends, not ardent companions, not the person the other most wanted or needed.

I wonder what their lives would have been like if they could have admitted earlier in their lives what had perhaps slowly and sadly been dying between them.

I don’t think that my parents were rare among couples who stay together for years, making do. People can have what feel like good reasons for doing without what they need, for not reaching out for the life that they want. Rather than boldly ask life to sustain them, they agree to maintain a life.

Praying this morning the Easter Office, I came across the stark juxtaposition of the words tomb and alleluia. The traditional antiphon almost seemed to suggest that in order to justify an alleluia it was not necessary to know what events had succeeded the arrival of the three Marys at the tomb of Jesus, that in and of itself coming to a tomb ready to acknowledge the reality of a dying is a vital, inescapable step toward any new life.

Thinking of my parents in the light of that Easter antiphon, I ask myself: what would their lives have been like if earlier than the end of those lives they had been willing to come to the tomb? Could they have trusted that there might be an alleluia waiting for each of them to pray at life changed and renewed?

"The Three Marys at the Tomb" by William Bouguereau at All Posters


Jim said...

The first anniversary of my father's death--and the 10th anniversary of my mother's--will soon be here. I have been reflecting some on the ways in which relationships continue after these passings, and how the challenges to forgive, understand, accept and then choose again to love, never seem to end.

Donald said...

It is in a way the invitation to be parents to the children who lived inside our parents' bodies when we were growing up. Someone (other than their children) needed to hold them and tell them that it was all going to be OK and that it was just important that they were doing the best they can.

MperiodPress said...

This touched me deeply, friend. Thank you.

I've wondered frequently what would have ever happened if my father had known how to choose happiness...knew what it felt like and what he had to do to get there and that it was okay for him to actually be happy.

He never got there on his own, but I like to think that the life I lead is a way for him to see someone modeling that for him. And that in some small way, at least a part of him, the part that lives on in me, gets to experience it.

Donald said...

"Choose happiness..." Your words will have more richness and complexity, the more they name the decision of someone who has managed to quiet the voices inside that simply urge "Maintain."

Thank you for choosing happiness and knowing there is a language for that kind of choice.