Since I heard the news last Sunday night, I have been like an alien in my own life, wandering lost and confused. The closest parallel I can think of is culture shock. Nothing familiar, everything odd, off kilter, confused. The world has had watery edges, except for memories that impale me.
He had just begun a bicycle ride. He loved to ride; it gave him clarity of mind, eased his tension, toned his muscles. He could compose entire literary pieces in his head while riding. But this time was different. A car appeared - in his way - he swerved, going off to the side, was thrown off the bike and his body broken. He never made it out of his neighborhood.
I have replayed in my mind what I understand about the wreck at least a hundred times, at first desperately wishing I could reverse time, tell him, “Don’t go, please.” Make him swerve the other way. Anything to keep what happened a reality. But it is a reality. And he can not escape it any more than I can or his family can.
At first, it seemed he might just be paralyzed below the chest. Note the irony of “might just” in that statement. Then the news got progressively worse. No movement below the neck. No wishes to be kept alive on machines. Ventilator removed after a surgery that affirmed more damage than was thought. Hope fading, but still flickering. And finally, his surrender hours later in the evening, with his children beside his hospital bed.
I love to ride my bicycle too. I have been surprised by the way it makes me feel, and it was a passion we shared. I have not been able to get on the bike since his accident. I look at in the garage, it was like a pet, and feel it reproaches me for my avoidance. I don’t know if I will ever be able to get back on that bike. For my dear sweet friend it became the means of his destruction. The very act of putting on the helmet, the gloves, the pedaling – even the thought of it – pierces me to the core. It is not fear I feel, but such intense searing loss that I worry I would not have the wits to remember how to change the gears.
This is not my first taste of sorrow. You know as you live and love, you will suffer. I have lost my sister, my father, experienced other heartaches. This last week has been one of the worst of my life. The landscape of work will be haunted for a long while, and I dread the pain still yet to come.
C.S. Lewis says that when you go to God when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, you find a “door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.”
Last night, I thought – probably deluded – myself into believing I felt a warmth of comfort from my friend. It was gone this morning and all that remained was the watery struggle of the day, reflected in the grey shadows and pouring rain out my window.
I am grateful for notes and comfort from my family and friends. But the great sadness weighs upon me physically, embodied. I have been thinking a lot about embodiment since his accident. What makes us who we are? Our brains, our hearts, our breath, some other spirit, our body?
Frederick Buechner claims faith can hold opposites together like laughter and tears, despair and hope, that faith “by its very nature both sees and does not see and whose most characteristic utterance, perhaps, is ‘Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.’” It was my friend’s prayer; it is the prayer we all utter in our loneliness and troubles.
I know Dale did not want a treacle kind of memorial. And he is right, as Madeleine L’Engle points out, we do not know what happens after death, but all of us will probably have a great deal to learn, and that learning is not necessarily easy. It is the hope that there is something after death I cling to.
Says Fred Buechner’s character Godric, “What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish into the sea. You beg. You whimper.”
I am begging and whimpering.