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By Luke Hawley

Who cares whether or not it’s true? In my head there are bath towels swaddling this stuff. Nothing else seeps through.

This is from a story I love by Amy Hempel titled In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. The narrator has come to visit her best friend in the hospital, finally, after staying away too long. The end is near and they’ve chosen to fill the room with jokes and trivial information instead of talking about what’s right there, in the gauze masks they wear and the camera keeping tabs on them from the nurses’ station. Death.

Amy Hempel

Later in the story, the narrator goes out to sit in the sun on a nearby beach and when she returns, the nurses have wheeled in another bed. She realizes that her friend wants her to stay the night. But she’s a character fraught with fear, anxious about everything, and this idea is too much for her, to be there until the end. So she tells her friend that she has to go home.
But what is she supposed to do? Look her best friend in the eye and tell her … what? It’ll all be okay?

I understand her urge to split town. No one wants to do the hard stuff.

Earlier in the story, they’re trying to recall Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief and the friend says: Where’s Resurrection? God knows, I want to do it by the book. But she left out Resurrection.

That’s my instinct too—to jump ahead to resurrection. And when it comes to Easter story, I’ll take the brain-swaddling bath towels. Give me the donkey rides and the children in church waving palm leaves. Give me the pastels of my daughter’s Easter dress. Give me the melting snow and the sneaky spring sun. Give me ham and scalloped potatoes and dinner rolls. Give me eggs full of jellybeans.

But there is death in this story. There is hurt and there is pain and it happens in the here-and-now world. This is the dissonance of Easter. Before I go jumping ahead to resurrection—as glorious as it might be—there’s work to be done in the here-and-now world.

I can’t help but think of Mary at the tomb, trying too to find acceptance in Jesus’ death, deep in that here-and-now dissonance, caught between hopelessness and the ever-calling day-to-day.

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” (John 20:15)

Hempel bookends her story with a tale about a chimpanzee who is taught sign language and with her newfound communication skills blames a mess she made on the janitor and then on the project director. Oh, that’s good, the friend says. A parable.

The narrator tells her that there’s more to the story, but it will break your heart. And so she skips it. She doesn’t tell the hard part of the story and she doesn’t stay for the hard part of the end of her friend’s life. She thinks she can skirt the dissonance. But she can’t—it’s the next necessary step towards that evasive fifth Kubler-Ross stage: acceptance. At some point, we just have to sit in it, feel all the feelings, get back to work, and make up our minds to hope for better things.

The narrator returns to the parable of the chimpanzee, who has become a mother, at the end of the story:

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.

And isn’t that Mary? Christ, come back. Christ, come back. And then what a difference that sixth stage—resurrection—makes.

Jesus said to her: “Mary.”

Luke Hawley

Luke Hawley teaches English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. His collection of short stories, The Northwoods Hymnal, won a Nebraska Book Award. He sings and writes songs for The Ruralists. Check him out at or

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