Last week I attended a funeral for a young man I knew from my work. He died in a bed in a homeless shelter. He was barely over thirty but, in many ways, he was still a child. His brain didn’t work the same as most other people’s brains work. Some of his family members showed up for the funeral – it was our first time seeing any of them in the two years that we knew this fellow – and they put together a montage of pictures from his childhood. He looks sweet and happy and maybe a little bit awkward in the pictures. He, too, got his heart broken along with his mind… although I’m never sure if minds that we consider broken actually are, or if we are the ones with broken minds, or if all of us have broken minds, in which case, I’m not sure why it matters to emphasize the brokenness of some minds over others. Regardless, his body broke as well and he then never got up again. He went from laying in his bed to laying in a stretcher to laying on a slab to laying in a coffin. I felt like I was attending the funeral of a child and it made me weep. He often made me laugh, with the accents he would assume when he spoke, with the way he pretended to shoot us with his fingers, “Bang! Bang!” and with the ways he was constantly sneaking in and out of places he was told not to go. This, too, is a Charlie, I kept thinking, this, too, is a Ruby. And he is dead, he is dead, he has been carried away, and we will never see him again.
Nietzsche said that God is dead and we have killed him, but he neglected to mention that all of us on the way to becoming supermen and superwomen are killing children on the way.
At the funeral the priest – the family asked for a Catholic service of sorts – talked about God’s love and how this young man was being welcomed home and being embraced in the love of God. And I wept because of this, too. It’s such a beautiful story and I remember how beautiful the world was when I believed that story, but now I don’t know what to believe. I just don’t know.
I do know this – this young man was the fourth “street person” that I knew who died in about a five week period. People are dying faster here than I remember them dying in Vancouver. All this despite the City Managers and public advocates and professional service providers who talk about how they are curing homelessness in this town. I’ve noticed that these people like to talk about poverty and health and the public good but none of them seem to talk about oppression. Until they do, people will continue to die here.
As all these people were dying, I got word from a dear friend out West that the eight year old son of one of her dear friends had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. They cut the kid’s head open once to try and remove it, but they weren’t able to get all of it. He’s in a hospital room confused and frightened and in a lot of pain when his meds start wearing off. His mom is barely holding on with the help of booze and pills and a loving husband and a loving friend.
I did mention that the kid is eight years old, right? Can you understand this? The world is full of parents grieving the loss of their children and children grieving the loss of their parents and lovers grieving the loss of their friends and all of us grieving, deep in our bones, everything that has been taken away before its time. When we recognize that this grief is inside all of us, how can anyone be condemned?
I’ve been rereading The Brothers Karamazov lately and I was struck by the words of Father Zossima when he tells Alyosha to hold himself responsible for all the sin in the world and hold himself accountable to all the pain in the world – to take it all into himself and carry it as his own. My God, I thought, I made the mistake of taking this advice seriously! It’s terrible advice. Don’t do it. It’s unbearable.
At the same time, another dear friend of mine told me his marriage had fallen apart. He has been very involved, from the very beginning, with a lot of the Truth and Reconciliation work that has been taking place in Vancouver. When I was at my lowest point there, I was a poor friend to him but he was a good friend to me, and he took me in for a time and gave me a home and was kind and gentle and considerate with and to me. I remember sitting in his kitchen and watching him make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for his kids. He was an amazing sandwich maker. He did everything just the way the kids wanted it done and he did it like it was nothing at all and just kept chatting happily with me all the while. I remember thinking, “I hope, one day, to be the kind of father you are.”
And now he too has been abandoned. Now he too will only see his kids part-time. This, too, seems like an unbearable thought.
I’ve continued to talk to the birds and the trees and the river and the grass and the bugs and the bushes and the flowers when I walk to work in the morning. I still invite them to meet me in my dreams so that we can speak a common language and understand each other. I’ve done this, now, for about two months straight. Then, the other day something miraculous happened – they spoke back.
I had just finished speaking my invitation to my dreams when I suddenly realized, I didn’t need to wait for my dreams to hear what they were saying to me. And then, two words appeared in my mind:
And that was all. Be grateful.
At first I was confused by this because, in many ways, I have spent the last few weeks feeling far more grateful than I have felt in years. Because I had fallen in love, you see? But as I thought about it more I thought they were recommending that I be grateful even for the things that I am not usually grateful for. And then I thought about how I also apologize to the plants and the animals and the river and the soil every day because I am counted amongst those who are poisoning and killing them all. And this is what I thought they were saying:
“We know that we are sick. But every day we continue to sing, we continue to flow, we continue to bloom. We know that we are dying and that you have poisoned us. But every day we choose to offer ourselves as something beautiful and good to the world. We don’t want your apologies. We know you’re sorry and we know you can’t make it better. Stop saying sorry and start saying thank you.”
And then I thought about the kid with brain cancer and I thought about other kids who are dying and I thought about how they still draw pictures and they still sing songs and they still dance and they still tell stories – while they still can – and they don’t want us to spend all our time crying over them and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Instead, they want us to say, “My God, what a beautiful picture. Thank you. It’s perfect, I love it, can I have another?”
And so I decided to try and be grateful. I said thank you to the birds and the trees and the river and the grass and the bugs and the bushes and the flowers and I didn’t say sorry and I said I couldn’t wait to see them again tomorrow.
The very next day when I was walking under the bridge, I saw something that made me forget to keep moving my feet. A pigeon had become tangled in some of the debris dangling from a pipe that ran under the bridge and it was hanging in the air above the river. One wing was above its head and the other was hanging at its side. It had suffocated and died and its body was left there hanging and spinning and twirling. I couldn’t look away and I only remembered to keep walking after somebody almost hit me on a bicycle. The world seemed to be speaking again and it felt ominous. And I didn’t know how this fit into feeling grateful…
…And then the girl I fell in love with said she didn’t want to be with me and said we couldn’t talk anymore and I understood what was going on.
And I said thank you. For everything. For being. Even though I felt like I was spinning and twirling in the air, I said thank you. Because I felt that, too.
This is what it means to have your heart come back to life again. Living hearts know joy but living hearts also know sorrow. That’s why we numb our hearts – that’s why I numbed mine. I was tired of feeling sorrow. But I have decided to accept the sorrow again. And so I grieve the young man and the three others who died, and so I grieve the child with brain cancer, and so I grieve the divorce my friend is experiencing, and so I grieve my own broken heart… and still I say thank you.
I was walking to the bar a week or so ago and a leaf, already yellow, landed on me and I realized that it was shaped exactly like a heart. I opened my eyes and noticed that the sidewalk and the lawn beside me were littered with leaves and all of them were heart shaped. How about that, eh?
I always thought my mom was a little crazy – albeit in a harmless way – because she sees everything as a love letter to her from God. These butterflies, the shape of that snowbank, they all spoke to her of God’s love for her. Now I think I understand it a little more. My mom is simply in love. And when you’re in love, everything strikes you as a love letter from and to your Beloved.
My God, what a beautiful picture. Thank you. It’s perfect, I love it, can I have another?