Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Short Path

It took only a few seconds to walk the short distance from my seat to the podium that faced the multitude gathered for the funeral. A few steps that, days before, I could never imagine I would have to walk. Once I got to the podium, it was to be my turn to deliver my eulogy for the individual whose body was lying in repose a few short steps away from me; my turn to say a few words to a room packed with total strangers, about the young man I knew who took his own young life a few short days before.

They weren’t all total strangers, to be honest; I had met the young man’s mother the previous week, when they arrived to perform the grim task of collecting my dead co-worker’s possessions from his locker. I was his immediate supervisor, so I was the one that had taken the initial phone call from the mother, I was the first one at work to hear than her son, her oldest child, a brother with many younger sisters, had killed himself. Like too many young people today, he had chosen a short walk to a final destination, from where there was no turning back. His mother had made arrangements with me to come and collect his personal effects from work… one of the many unexpected details she now found herself dealing with that terrible week.

The shock of the news of his suicide kept me in a complete daze as I solemnly packed up his things for his mom to take home. I found myself constantly pausing in mid-stride, as though lost in a fog. Why did he do it? Why do they ever do it? Could I have known, should I have seen, that he was thinking about this kind of choice? Was there something I could have said, something I should have done, to persuade him to follow a different path? No answers were coming, probably none would ever come; ultimately he walked alone, across a solitary journey guided by thoughts he chose to share with no other, not even his own mother. Somehow I kept busy, because I had a job to do, for her.

Like in an old movie musical, there were words in the air as I worked, unheard by passersby but loud as church bells to me: "You Can’t Take It With You", went the ghoulish refrain, repeated over and over again. As I gathered the assorted things I found there, I remembered all the books, films, albums, clothes and other material possessions I myself had ever desired in my own life, the many things I had doggedly collected over the years, dragging them around from one side of the country to the other in my travels. By the time I had finished assembling his stuff, helpfully sorting it into themed piles for his family’s later convenience, I doubted I would ever "desire" any material thing, for myself, ever again. Closing the last box, turning to stare at the empty space behind me was a stark reinforcement of the lesson we waste too much of our lives coming to understand.

I re-learned it yet again as I walked up to the podium to deliver my eulogy, for in doing so I needed to walk past the body of the person whose locker now lies empty.

You can’t take it with you…

When his mother had visited us to collect her late son’s things, I volunteered to carry the heavier of the boxes out the building for her, trying to find a way to ease her physical burden so that she’d be better able to shoulder her spiritual one. She assured me she was fine, the car was just around the corner, so it was only a short walk. "If I could carry four kids", she said softly, more to herself than to me, "then I can carry this".

Time was pressing for her, but she did linger long enough for me to stumble through a few improvised, heartfelt condolences. I guess I made a good first impression, because based on only that short talk she perked up to ask me if I could please repeat those same sentiments at the funeral taking place the following week. For her, I certainly would.

My co-worker had never mentioned his mother, in fact his passing made me realize that for all the time I had spent with him he might as well have been a total stranger to me. When I would work with him I always thought I was seeing a younger version of myself, and in a way I suppose I did, the bad as well as the good; I saw the older version of me that outlived his faith, the version of me who once only believed in a short path, with a clear, empty conclusion, not the winding, twisting, unknowable trail that I lived to believe life really offers us, with its final destination wreathed in impenetrable fog, if we could grow the patient perception to see it as it truly is.

I stopped being that kind of person years ago, and standing at that podium for my turn to eulogize my former co-worker, facing a silent audience filled with faces deprived of any light of hope, I heard a five minute speech that would have sounded strange indeed to the young man I myself used to be. Strange experience; I felt as if I wasn’t the one doing the talking at all, I felt as if I was with the audience, watching what I was going to do, listening for what I was going to say, just as they were. In a way, I was; I never did get a firm idea of what one earth I could possibly say once I got up there. I didn’t really know until I looked into the crowd, and from them I saw what needing saying, saw what was missing, in myself as well as them, at this unfathomable moment in time: how to live in hope.

"How did it go?", I was asked by the rest of the team when I returned to work that afternoon. How in the world do you answer such a question, from an event like that? Well, once the service itself came to a close, we ceremoniously filed past the grieving family, one at a time. The sister thanked me so movingly that it was all I could do not to cry right there in front of her. "I hope that my talk helped", I sincerely asked his mother, next in line. "That was so wonderful, that will help so-o-o much", his mother answered back through a combination of smiles and tears that I’ll never forget, granting me the greatest compliment I'd ever received.

My "turn" completed, I started to move along, yet I kept my eyes locked with hers, wanting to soak up more of that strength. Suddenly some spark lit up within her, and she reached out one more time for my hand, and I took one short step back for a final, silent embrace that spoke more eloquently about the paths we choose for ourselves than any speech I could have made or any blog post I ever could have written.

How did it go? It was like how life goes: you try and do your best with what you've got.

This whole sad nightmare makes me think about how far even our short lives can take us. All it takes is that first step, that first act of faith, the attempt to live with the doubt that we can never truly know whether there might yet exist a better tomorrow than the yesterday we leave behind us. If we choose to imagine a long enough path, who’s to say that the painful memories that weigh upon us on our travels might not eventually become as wrapped in fog as any of the ambiguous shapes lying in wait for us, in impenetrable fogs of their own, along the winding road ahead.


Eowyn said...

Charles Henry, please accept all my sympathy at the loss of your friend. And my admiration that you chose the painful path of speaking out for him at his funeral -- it is a difficult thing. We all have undergone the torments he felt. We can't find the "right" words to try and bring comfort and understanding because verbalizing such things brings them too close to home, sometimes. So, perhaps, it's less a case of not being able to find the words than not wishing to.

It was a brave and wonderful thing you did to overcome that, no matter how inadequate you may have privately felt.

You brought comfort to his family. And that is a blessing.

He is well, now. I think, in the end, that's all that matters.

Charles Henry said...

Thanks Eowyn,

I appreciate your kind words and especially that you took the time to leave such a helpful comment.

One chapter to the story that got left on the "cutting room floor" was the aftermath in the reception area... seeing all the little kids, some babies, some 2-3 year old toddlers, some 5-8 year olds, that were somewhat oblivious to what had just happened... it reminds you that life goes on, that it's in surrounding oneself with the presence of all these young people that it becomes much easier to believe in getting over the pain and getting on with one's own life.

There's still work to be done... new responsibilities waiting to be shouldered. We can't stop the world between floors as if it's an elevator ride we're riding at our leisure.

Thank God for the blessing of children..! And family.

Anonymous said...

My condolences, Charles. That can't have been easy, although it sounds like in the end, it was an experience worth having, despite the pain of it.

It's always kind of odd when we learn so many things from mistakes - the death or entropy of ideas or decisions - or from the death or absense of others. It's kind of sad in way, that it seems to be the absence of whatever it is that we're missing that teaches us so much.

But then I guess if we did not have that absence of pleasure, or happiness, or someone else, then we would never learn the things that we do.

And so in the end, I suppose the equilibrium is and must be maintained; between freedom and responsibility, between pain and knowledge ( Odin on the tree, Christ on the cross ), and between loss and gain.

It sounds like you gained something from this loss, and from that, I suppose, can come some small measure of comfort.