I was thinking about what I should write for this week’s blog when I came across a Lenten meditation by my friend and colleague, Chad Engbers. It was so beautiful and so moving that I felt it had to be shared. And widely. May you be as blessed as I was. –JLH
“Chad,” my dad whispered to me, “I think she’s gone.”
It was about 3:30am, mid-September. Dad and I were sitting on either side of the bed where, for several hours, my mom had lain breathing her last breaths. They were slow, shallow breaths. My dad, my brothers, and I had sat with her for hours, listening for any sign of change, and looking intently at her face, whose eyes were closed and whose skin had become gaunt and grey—so very unlike Mom. We had gathered around the bedside the previous afternoon, when she was still alert enough to recognize us, smile, and even speak a little.
But now Dad was right: she was gone.
We all stood, hugged, went to sit in the living room (!) to regroup. There was a strange shift in the center of gravity: for weeks, Mom’s bedroom had been the emotional center of the house, the important room, the place where one was intended to be, the place where anyone who entered the house ultimately ended up. And one of the most important events in any of our lives had just happened to us in that room, yet we all immediately and instinctively withdrew.
When the funeral home personnel arrived some time later, they put Mom’s body on a gurney and wheeled her out, asking if anyone wanted to see her first. “I can’t,” I said, looking away without moving from my place on couch.
I had spent most of the past night literally staring at the face of death, and could not do it one more time. Days and weeks of sorting through Mom’s old photographs would eventually help to eclipse the hollowed-out image of her face that had been fixed in my mind through those hours of vigilance.
Then everybody went to bed, except me. I stayed on the couch, staring at the street, and only as the sky slowly began to brighten did I realize that what I was doing there was… waiting. Waiting for Mom to come home. It crushed me to think the simple, obvious thought that morning would return, and she would not.
I took a deep breath, and I got up to find a cup of coffee and at least wash my face. Coming out of the bathroom, I glanced down the hallway and saw the open door to Mom’s room. I didn’t decide to return there; I just did. I was ready to see, and for some reason took a picture of what I saw.
“See where she lay,” I said to myself—and then immediately asked myself what I was quoting. The angel at the empty tomb from the Gospels, yes, but also a poem that I couldn’t place right away. It turned out to be one that I had written many years earlier. It is not a very good poem, I’m afraid, and I literally wrote it instead of making the bed one weekday morning:
The pulling at the sheet,
the tugging and the tucking,
the hand that moves and smoothes,
erasing, as from paper, folds and lines,
the punching and plumping of the pillows,
the stretching of the bedspread flat as slate—
Here lies an early morning sepulcher:
the sunken sheet,
cross-creased like leaves of tea,
a simple sketch of old mortality,
the shape of one who slept.
Read here your earthly form.
This warm and wrinkled hollow held the head,
cradling the skull (that cradled dreams).
The weary women went there, treading dew,
and all they found was news
—and not so much of that:
No talk of who, or why, or when
They gazed in wonder at the giant rock—
It didn’t budge an inch.
And who has ears to hear how deep Death groans
when angels set their shoulders to such stones?
This sheet is stamped by sleep,
of shoulders, back, and thighs,
the echo of a silent mortal sigh.
Here lay a man, rehearsing for the grave,
and when the lights came up and curtains rose,
the shroud was flung aside;
he left the wounded stage
with a yawn.
See where he lay.
The point of the poem is the rather common observation that even our daily lives reflect grand narratives, and for me as a Christian the point is that grand narrative of Easter animates every moment of my waking life, not just the glorious 90 minutes I spend in church on that one Sunday every year.
In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Narnia has been cursed with the very worst weather: “always winter, and never Christmas”—a phrase which also captures exactly how it feels to live in Michigan through January, February, and much of March. Beneath that persistent dreariness, however—or above it, or beyond it—is the simple truth that, for Christians, it is always Easter. Even in February, even in Michigan.
Even in the dark room where Mom died.
Maybe I instinctively snapped a picture that morning because the tableau in Mom’s room seemed to speak, almost artistically, to the same truth—that powerfully comforting truth—that it is always Easter. Not just that the dead will rise again, not just that there is a life beyond this life, but also that there is a bold new life within this life, always already ready to be lived.
I could not know, at the time, that on January 1, the trees outside that window—the ones that Mom stared at day in and day out—would be strangely and unseasonably full of birds, chirping so loudly that it was impossible to ignore them even indoors with all the doors and windows shut. But it did seem to me that something stronger than sunlight was gently falling through that window.
* * *
It has been a strange Lent for me. My academic focus is on poems about repentance, so I typically find all kinds of resonance—intellectual, emotional, and spiritual—in the forty preparatory days of not-yet-Easter. Never having been a very exuberant person, I have come to appreciate Advent almost more than Christmas, and Lent almost more than Easter. This year, however, those narratives have been disrupted by the conviction that the end has already begun; the conclusion is already accomplished. It is not Easter yet; it’s always Easter.
My social media feed is full of pictures of early spring flowers poking up through the ground of my friends’ backyards. These are, of course, perfect emblems of Easter, with new life stubbornly erupting up through the dust and dirt of death.
This year, however, I have found myself thinking instead of the melting snow banks along the roads and sidewalks that I traverse daily, either commuting to work or walking the dog.
Winter doesn’t just cover the landscape; it changes it. New hills and valleys are sculpted by snowplows and shovels and wind. Sidewalks disappear, and usually they become so icy that you have to walk in the crunchy snow next to them for better traction. A sidewalk temporarily becomes the thing you walk beside.
Spring is the season when the terrain reverts to normal. It is not just that a new landscape is created with fresh shoots and blossoms and leaves; it is that the old landscape re-emerges as the solid ground that has been there all along, just as, in time, the cold and grim visage of my dying mother thawed from my mind into the happy memories of the mom I had always known.
Easter has been here all along. It is the solid ground on which we walk everywhere, even in our dreary daily routines. Easter Sunday is a new beginning, absolutely; but it is also an old reminder of what always is.
It is certainly the ground on which Mom herself lived and moved and had her being. She never put much weight on things or clothes or social status. There was almost no pretense about her. Facing certain death, she had no need to shuffle her spiritual furniture or rearrange her priorities. There were no amends she had to make, no apologies to offer or relationships to repair, no big questions to confront.
She was physically emaciated by cancer and chemotherapy, but emotionally and spiritually—right up until her death—she was just who she was: humble, loving, kind, relentlessly generous. She was living the bold, new life within the life. The resurrection was always already true in her.
It is always already true.
Chad Engbers: Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. “And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.”