Yesterday I sang at the funeral of a man I had never met and I cried.
He sounded like a great guy – someone I would have liked and would have shared a great deal in common. His family loved him. The line that killed me was his son-in-law saying, “I’m so grateful that my children got to be his grandchildren.”
I had to sing after that. He loved Elvis, so they asked me to sing “an Elvis song”. I chose an old gospel hymn that he covered:
there will be peace in the valley for me someday
there’s gonna be peace in the valley for me, dear Lord I pray
there’ll be no sorrow, no sadness, no trouble I see
there’s gonna be peace in the valley for me
Sharing in the grief of his family and friends connected me to the reservoir of sorrow that floods all of humanity. One of the linchpins of the Incarnation is that Jesus was “acquainted with grief,” which I think is poetic understatement. For him and for us all, grief is a lifelong companion. Loss is one of the necessary threads in the tapestry of our existence. As I drove from the church to the restaurant, trying to shift gears so I could work, an old T-Bone Burnett song rose to the surface of my memory and I sang as I drove:
there’s a river of love that runs through all time
but there’s a river of tears that floods through our lives
it’s starts when your heart is broken into
by the thief of belief in anything that’s true
but there’s a river of love that runs through all time
Until I read the lyric at his website, I always thought the line was, “It starts when your heart is broken in two,” as in pieces, but he’s singing, “broken into,” as a thief would do. The rivers of love and tears fill the same banks.
Tonight, as I sat down to write, I learned that Madeleine L’Engle died on Thursday. One of the lights of my life has gone out. When I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Reedy, my teacher, enticed us to get our work done by promising to read from her favorite book at the end of the day. That book was A Wrinkle in Time. I went on from there to read most everything Madeleine wrote from the rest of the books in what became The Time Quintet to her young adult novels about the Austin family to her nonfiction works. Some time in the eighties, I wrote her a letter that began, “Dear Madeleine, you are one of my best friends but you just don’t know it.” I told her about Mrs. Reedy and what her books had meant to me. She wrote me back (I found the letter just this week as I was packing up my office to get ready to move) and we corresponded intermittently until her husband Hugh (who was Dr. Tyler on All My Children) died. I got the form letter she sent out that said, “Hugh got sick around Epiphany and he died just after Pentecost.”
Madeleine L’Engle taught me how to mark and keep time.
I never got to see her in person. Once, while we were corresponding, I wrote to say I was going to be in New York City and asked if we could share a meal. She wrote back saying she was going to be at Crosswicks, her family home, for the summer, and included her phone number in New York if I got there another time. I called once and spoke to her granddaughter. Then I decided the reason I wanted to meet her in person had more to do with hero worship than relationship; I could keep our friendship in my reading. That’s how I knew her.
On the afternoon she died, I was sitting in my favorite Boston (actually Somerville) pub, the Burren, with two dear friends who I got to know when I was teaching in Winchester. When I think of people who have helped me keep and mark time while we have lived in New England, Jack and Jenn are in that group. I love the combination of Jack’s adventuresome nature and compassionate heart and Jenn’s artistic eye and unflappable spirit. I am ten years older than Jack and he is ten years older than Jenn and we are friends. When we arrived on the planet doesn’t matter nearly as much as we gotten to share time together over the past several years.
Madeleine is dead, but I can go upstairs and find her by pulling one of her books off the shelf and letting her words come alive. I imagine that those who really knew and loved her don’t share my consolation. They, like the family at the funeral yesterday, are dealing with the physical reality of her absence. She’s gone. She will not be there for dinner or for holidays or for whatever she was always there for. However deep their pain, they don’t know what it feels like to walk out of the Burren and realize Jack and Jenn and I have only a couple more afternoons like that to share.
In her book, Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine wrote:
When we make ourselves vulnerable, we do open ourselves to pain, sometimes excruciating pain. The more people we love, the more we are liable to be hurt, and not only by the people we love, but for the people we love.
Ginger and I spent this morning in Charlestown, the neighborhood of Boston where we used to live. Our breakfasts were seasoned with the tears and laughter that resurrect memories as our hearts were broken into once again. We sat for a couple of hours, holding past and present, talking about the things we carried and some of the things weighing us down in these days. Madeleine used to talk about being every age you’ve been at the same time, life stacking itself up like altar stones, our experiences singing out in chorus rather than speaking one at a time.
And so I am a fourth grader hearing A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, twenty-something writing Madeleine a letter, thirty-two seeing Ginger for the first time; I’m sitting in the Burren with Jack and Jenn, walking through Charlestown with Ginger, watching the Schnauzers bound down the beach in the moonlight, making dinner for whomever comes to eat, singing at a funeral, packing boxes to finish our time here and start new things in Durham.
Truly, there’s a river of love that runs through all times.