a year of morning thanks
An old note of sympathy (iii)
A colleague--a blood relative--lost a son in an accident years ago. At what people here call "the visitation," I was, as far as I knew, the only true family relative in attendance. I was much younger then; and as we slowly marched up to the family at the casket, I wondered how he might react to my greeting, the only blood kin there.
It didn't seem to matter at all as I remember, because his eyes were on the man behind me, a man who, once we had politely expressed our condolences, hugged my cousin mightily. In a flash, I understood why: the man who followed us in line had also lost a child. Blood kin meant little; shared experience made all the difference.
So when Grandpa says what he does in this note to a grieving family, I'm guessing that both writer and recipient recognize the bond of shared experience. What I'm saying is that my grandfather, the preacher, might have written the same words he did that April day, having not lost a child; but the fact that he had changes the way we read the solace in the words, lending as that experience does incalcuable gravity.
"This certainly is a shadow in your life which will never be entirely taken away on this side of death and the grave," he says. Today, I would love to ask Grandpa Schaap whether he would have written those same words thirty years later, when his many kids gave him dozens of grandkids. I'd like to ask him whether, in his own consciousness, the horrifying profile of his own daughter's death eventually lost some of its jagged edge. I don't know that.
And then a stunning line. "But such is life," he writes. Such here is feels something like a vague pronoun, its exact antecedent only vaguely assumed. Most readers would guess that he's suggesting we suffer agonies throughout our lives, hurts that, like open wounds, never really heal and therefore accompany us right through own final days. "Such is life."
Let me put the two lines together again: "This," he says, speaking of the death of their son, "certainly is a shadow in your life which will never be entirely taken away on this side of death and the grave. Such is life."
I can't help but think that what he says here feels immensely dark, but then I've never lost a child.
He goes on. "I have made mention of it [presumably, that "such is life"] time and time again in my sermons, . . ."
My grandfather baptized me, but I don't remember ever seeing him in a pulpit; he died when I was six years old. Through the years I've heard stories from countless people who knew him, and most everyone told me that he was a kind and loving man, nothing close to the caricature Calvinist hellfire preacher.
But the way he characterizes his own preaching here makes him sound fatalistic, as if life itself is, end to end, is little more than a long shadowy valley. "Time and time again," he says, he's preached that.
And that makes me wonder how long it took him to get back into the pulpit after the death of his daughter. When he did, I wonder if, time and time again, he told his parishoners that "such is life."
And I wonder if that changed--the character of his preaching--once he got to that new church in Lucas, Michigan, once he could hold his head up once more and, suitably at least, hold his grief at bay.
Undoubtedly, what happens in church is different today. A century later, worship is often a bit short on lament, brimming as it is with praise. Maybe our perception of preaching has changed too; maybe our well-heeled affluence demands the fulfillment we need from the joy and hope of the gospel. It seems to me that today a preacher--even a young preacher, as Grandpa was--who tells us, "over and over again" that "such is life" would soon enough wear out a welcome.
But then, I need to remember my psychologist friend, who told me that the rest of us should give a grieving parent a five-year window of forgiveness. Presumably, even preachers.
Such is life. Over and over again.