In my new vocational incarnation, I am reading more, both books I’ve had stacked around for awhile and those I’m reading again with students. My tenth grade class is reading one of my favorite novels, Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, which tells the story of Stephen Kumalo’s search for his lost son. Kumalo is my favorite character in literature and the story is full of faith and humanity, as evidenced by this exchange between Kumalo and Father Vincent, his friend.
My friend, your anxiety turned to fear, and your fear turned to sorrow. But sorrow is better than fear. For fear impoverishes always, while sorrow may enrich.
Kumalo looked at him, with an intensity of gaze that was strange in so humble a man, and hard to encounter.
— I do not know that I am enriched, he said.
— Sorrow is better than fear, said Father Vincent doggedly. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arriving.
— And where have I arrived? asked Kumalo.
— When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house, said Father Vincent in that symbolic language that is like the Zulu tongue. But when a house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house. (140)
Perhaps the passage has haunted me because the words sorrow and house show up in the same passage. Sorrow is spreading like ivy across our family as we watch Reuben, my father-in-law, fall deeper into Alzheimer’s. The doctor said he has moved from the “severely moderate” stage to “moderately severe,” and lest that sound like medical semantics, we can expect his disappearance to deepen in days and weeks rather than months. We are losing more and more of him and I, like Kumalo, do not know that I am enriched. What we do know is it is time to bring him to us.
Ginger and I are making plans for her parents to come and live here in Durham with us by the end of the summer. Rachel is his primary caregiver and will soon not be able to do it on her own, so the arriving of our sorrow brings us to a place where it is time to gather in close and cling to each other, borrowing from a lyric I wrote long ago. The practical implications of the decision begin with our becoming real estate tycoons for a time, selling their house in Birmingham, ours here in Durham, and buying a larger place to accommodate us all. (Anyone want to buy a house?) My recent job change brings with it the unexpected blessing of significant time off this summer; it looks as though I will spend a good bit of it in some sort of moving van.
There is plenty of fear to go around: fear of Reuben’s continuing digression, fear of their moving for the first time in a half a century, fear of how all of this gets paid for, fear of whatever else might happen. The sorrow, as in the story, is not far behind. Elizabeth Bishop is right: the art of losing isn’t hard to master. Sharing a house with Reuben will be giving absence an address in a way, his familiar yet vacant shell sitting down to dinner with us each evening. As he continues to forget, we, his family, are charged with re-membering both him and ourselves, putting the pieces back together on a daily basis, rebuilding what continues to fall apart.
Even as I write about it, I don’t know what to expect, or how to expect it.
The tenth graders wrote essays today, looking at the same passage I quote here, along with a couple of others that didn’t come from the book to give them something to bounce off of. Here are two of them:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. – Ambrose Redmoon
There is much in the world to make us afraid. There is much more in our faith to make us unafraid. – Frederick W. Cropp
As I read them, I can hear Julie Miller singing in the background,
you have come by way of sorrow
you have come by way of tears
but you’ll reach your destiny
meant to find you all these years
meant to find you all these years
The reason I keep coming back to Stephen Kumalo is his story says what Cropp’s quote says: there is more in our faith to make us unafraid, even to make us bold. From where we are in the story right now, things only get worse for Kumalo, as far as circumstances go, and his compassion and faith only deepen. Father Vincent knows of what he speaks: sorrow makes for strong building blocks when it is shaped by courage and love. Part of the journey for Stephen is to a deeper understanding that he is not alone, either in the depth of his pain or the struggle for change.
The same is true for us.
We are not the first to watch helplessly as a loved one fade away before our eyes. We are not the first to struggle with the financial realities of what it means to be family. We are also not the first to trust that God is with us, as are a significant cloud of witnesses and fellow travelers. We are not alone.
We are not alone.
We are not alone. I might do well to let that begin most any paragraph I write because fear’s insidious intent is to erase that truth. We are not alone. I say it and remember it is as true for you as it is for me. In the midst of my real estate and reality, I am called to look up and offer a hand to you in your pain, even as I receive your offering.
We are not alone. What can separate us from the love of God? Will Alzheimer’s or distance or housing sales or debt? Will questions or sleeplessness or sorrow or fear? No. Nothing will separate us from a Love that will not let us go. We are not alone.
We are not alone.