Under the white dresser near the closet in our master bathroom, surrounded by an impressive collection of dust bunnies, sits a pair of women’s shoes. The shoes are brown low-top hikers, crusted with mud. They have remained unworn in that spot under the dresser for more than eight years. They belong to my wife. It is probable they will remain there until we move from this house, if we ever do.
Almost nine years ago, now: The funeral director hands me, so delicately, the tiny white casket. In the moment I don’t care that thousands of other people probably feel this way today, stand in similar places, carry similar burdens. That thousands will tomorrow, and the day after that. That people will shoot others, blow others up, subject each other and themselves to untimely deaths that leave in their wake so many who grieve like this. There is a well of grief that permits only the narrowest view. I know only this six-pound-twelve-ounce boy, the clothes he’s wearing, the stuffed Snoopy beside him, the three-pound casket: maybe ten pounds all told. These black gloves, that white casket, this icy ground. The longest walk, the heaviest weight. This inescapable present tense.
I could carry my boy down the street to our house, barely a quarter mile away, carry him to the crib we set up for him in his own bedroom. But in this moment between our house and the cemetery lies an uncrossable chasm. I carry him instead between other people’s gravestones, across thirty feet or so of frozen and then muddy ground. I walk toward a heavily bearded man standing down in the grave. This man speaks gently, urging caution because the mud is slippery and he doesn’t want me to fall in. It would be Romantic to say that I wouldn’t mind tumbling into the grave with my son and staying there, but it would be false. I want to keep walking, keep carrying my son.
I have a picture that I’ve never shared in public of the final moment of that walk. In the picture I crouch in the mud that crusted our shoes and pass my son over to that bearded man. The white of the casket stands in sharp contrast to my black gloves and coat, to the mud displaced from the earth to make room for our son, to the man’s drab overalls and brown beard. You can see in my hands and arms how light the casket is. You can see in the set of my jaw how heavy those few pounds could be.
After the service my wife and I cross the chasm and return to our five-year-old son and our quiet house. We both remove our mud-crusted shoes and leave them in the garage. Later she puts hers under the dresser in our bathroom. Sometime during the following week, perhaps on the day I disassemble Benjie’s crib and put it back in the attic, I wash the mud from my shoes so that I can wear them again. It isn’t a symbolic act of moving on, of healing or cleansing. These are my favorite shoes. It does not occur to me not to wash them. I wear them until they stop being comfortable a couple years later.
And yet I am tempted, when I see Suahil’s mud-crusted shoes under the dresser, to ask: Am I doing this right?
The question is harmless and natural in itself but becomes the launching point for doing mental violence to myself when I answer. Because, indeed, the answer will always feel like it should be “No.” Other people grieve better than I do. That’s the assumption. We’re grieving the same loss, my wife and I, and we’re doing it differently. Is her way better? Am I doing this right?
There’s a comfortable answer to be had here: yes, I’m doing it right. There’s no right way to grieve. Lots of people have written about this. But that answer hasn’t provided any actual comfort to me. It’s fine if there’s no right way, but then what do I do? What’s my end goal? I have wanted guidance in the procedure of grief, in how to proceed.
And here, perhaps, is where I go wrong. I conflate procedure with process. All of our phrases for the goal of grieving are built upon verbs of agency and movement: we “get over” the pain, or “get through” the tough times, or “overcome” that thing that brought us down. It is tempting to wake up on any given day and to look for something to DO, something to climb or wrestle or wrangle so that I might effect my own healing. So that I might know what the next step is, and take it. The problem is that some days, there’s nothing to take. There are good days, and there are bad days. There’s a tremendous amount of patient endurance in this. I have hated that, often.
I can look back from this point and see the process, though, the procession of events and moments that have led from there to here. Better: I can see how we were never, not once, out of God’s hands. But I still don’t know how far along I am in the process, where it’s going, where it ends. I’m never privy to the fullness of my own context. I still don’t know the procedure, even now.
The words of the oft-quoted Psalm 46 become prescient for me in these moments of unknowing, and not only for the Lord’s command that I should be still and know that He is God, not I. The psalmist describes God as a fortress, “our refuge and strength, / an ever-present help in trouble” and, in my favorite verse, says that when God “lifts His voice, the earth melts.” This is our God, the refuge, the ever-present, the One who in Exodus names Himself to Moses as “I Am.” The One who could melt the earth but chooses not to.
When I ask if I’m doing this right, this process of grieving, what I’m really asking is for God to speak and direct, to raise His voice to comfort and assure me, to give me the procedure. But maybe this is where the trust comes in. Maybe He asks me, in grief or not, to trust in His perpetual-present-tense, in His sheltering love for my full context, in His restraint. Maybe He whispers words of comfort because whispers are all I can handle.
I have not seen the earth melted. But I have seen it churned up into mud, have crouched in it, handed my son over into it, carried it home on my shoes. And though I washed the mud off my shoes and my wife did not, we both, individually, have sought God’s voice in that churning. He speaks differently to each of His children. I know this because I speak differently to mine, according to their needs, and He is a better parent than I’ll ever be. He says, in His various ways, “I am here.” He whispers so He does not melt everything.
Perhaps in the seeking of those whispers, we’re both doing it right.
(First published at Off the Page. All rights reserved.)
Header photograph © Chris Nielsen.
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