Last fall when I wrote Changing Landscapes: Winter and talked about the grief of losing my dad-in-law and likened it to the falling temperatures, the falling leaves, the settling down for winter months of barrenness, I had no idea that the season befalling me held more death and change than I could have possibly foreseen. In September we lost Jim. In November we lost my sweet, fiery grandma, Frances Bowles. In January we lost my Aunt Dee. Each death was completely different than the one preceding it, processed and handled in unique ways, tailored to fit the person and the situation. I hated every minute of it, even while standing in awe of the love that surrounded me.
My Maw was ninety-nine. She was strong and resilient up until the last seven to ten days of her life. Only at that point did her body completely fail her and her mind wander into territory only she could know and interpret, dreaming the dreams of the mists between fiction and reality, between death and life. And when her release finally came, we were thankful in the midst of our grief. We wished her nothing but celebratory freedom and sent her Home on a tidal wave of love.
Dee’s passing was not the same. It was unexpected. It was sudden and horrific and it struck our hearts as violently as her car struck the embankment she drove into after her heart stopped and her spirit left her body. We know she wasn’t in her car, in her body, when metal hit ground at such a high rate of speed. We know that because science is a wonderful thing and so is faith. And when the two combine, it leaves very little to doubt.
Still, the aftermath of an unexpected, unplanned, sudden absence is turbulent and moves with a momentum that is forceful and demanding in ways that expected passings don’t muster. Death, it turns out, has many faces. It is sometimes like a gentle rain, bringing release and beauty. Other times it is a monsoon that rips away peace and safety like a monster of the deep. And we who are left must find a way to move forward, bowing beneath the weight of absence.
This past Sunday my pastor, Kraig Wall, gave a poignant Palm Sunday message. For a few minutes, he focused our attention on the women who followed Jesus. They migrated with Him from place to place, no doubt caring for the multitudes that cried out for His words, His touch, His miracles, the changes He brought into their world. Much like our world, theirs was fraught with political tension. The publicity of the time period was split between two clashing points of view, neither giving credence nor compassion to the other. Rome versus Israel, World versus God, War versus Peace; violence, mistrust, and uncertainty riddling both sides of two people groups inhabiting the same country, the same town, the same neighborhood. And the women? No one really noticed them. They were servants; necessary but not elevated. And so if a few of them wanted to watch from the sidelines and not miss a moment of what the forces around them decided, who would notice?
And it was with that knowledge of their own invisibility that they made the choice to stay close to Jesus as He walked the streets of Jerusalem the days between his triumphant arrival when the crowd loved him, to his bloody assassination, when the crowd despised him. Less than a week between the two events. Less than a week between security and the unknown of shattered plans. And on that day when it all came crashing down around them, when the crowds demanded blood running in the streets, the women faced down death from the front lines. They didn’t go back to a safe place inside the walls of the city where they would be shielded from the horrific scene of watching the One they trusted beyond all else whipped and beaten. Instead, they stood on the edges of the crowd and made themselves bear witness to his torture. After He had carried the cross through Jerusalem and outside of the city up the hill of Golgotha, they again stood in the crowd and watched. They watched the nails hammered into his body, the cursing, the taunting, the stabbing. They watched him slowly suffocate and they watched as the darkness settled in like a cloak. They heard him give up his spirit and they bore witness not only to his death, but to the response of the earth itself as the ground shook and hell broke loose around them. They did not turn their eyes from death. They stared it down, unblinking.
I had never given much thought to what morticians do in detail. I understand the basics, but I’ve never spent time thinking about the process. And then, as I stood at the head of the casket and received many hugs and words of encouragement from a long line of people who loved my Aunt Dee and wanted to support us in our grief, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her ear lobe, where clear embalming fluids had pooled and are now set like a glass puddle in the shell of her ear. I had all kinds of rapid-fire thoughts and feelings after seeing that embalming fluid, like a glaze, collected and held against her skin so unnaturally. There was nothing left inside of her to hear anything we had to say. There was no one living in that skin anymore to be able to feel the sensation of something cold puddled and sealing her ear. But I watched it. I stared at it. I studied it. Why? Perhaps because it displayed more evidence of death, of the finality of parting, even if only for a time.
The finality involved with the week between Palm Sunday and Easter is transitional. It seemed final. It seemed horrific and absolute. But because the truth of Jesus is more, just more, the finality of death was a façade for him. The term “passing” was literally true for the Nazarene, the God-Man who could pass between death and life as easily as we pass between rooms. It’s probably not much of a challenge when you can author life on a whim. And because He can, we can. His name allows us to live as the resurrection people. And because I choose to live under His banner, I can look around me at the changing landscape. Where the trees were barren, they are now growing heavy with blooms. What was cut back in the fall is now regrowing. The sap that was frozen in the snow and ice of January is warming in the sun of spring and beginning to flow in the veins of the trees, bringing new life and beauty. The landscape looks different. It looks like life. It looks like my resurrected joy.