The phone rang at 9:10 this morning, the voice on the other end distressed. A member of the congregation I last served—on the way to the police station to identify her daughter’s body. That is a task no parent should face though sadly my own parents did; and I cannot help but think of the parents in Israel and Gaza these last two weeks steeling themselves to enter a morgue, to peer down as the breath escapes in solidarity with the ones who breathe no more. And my heart goes out to the woman who called and her former husband as an image of their daughter’s body—found in the woods days after death—sears itself into memory.
Several years ago another congregant perhaps not so different than the young woman who died, lay in a morgue in a city hospital after an overdose. I asked the attendant if I could view her face and offer a prayer and he flatly refused to unzip the body bag. He said the body was not fit for viewing. She had been found two or three days after she died. In that moment I wanted to cause a stink, to demand to speak to his supervisor. How could anyone be denied the act of witness by someone who cares? But I acquiesced and prayed through a vinyl bag that spared me an image probably less disturbing than hundreds glanced in twelve seasons of NYPD Blue. Why is it TV crime shows and medical dramas relish the most grotesque depictions of injury and death yet we are spared the reality of a bloated corpse found at her kitchen table after an overdose?
Nothing on TV will prepare the parents identifying their daughter as I type this. Nothing could have prepared my father to see his scorched son. Just as nothing prepared Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s parents for the sight of theirs. My brother’s fiery death in a car was the result of striking a tree. Muhammad died his fiery death in a grey car because three angry Israelis ignited him to avenge the equally abhorrent abduction and death of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel.
We live in a world where people murder children to express outrage at death, a world where some children reach adulthood in spite of childhoods so beset with dysfunction it is a wonder they survive.
The young woman whose mother called used to call me herself. She referred to me as her minister especially when I visited her in the hospital. I bought her art supplies with my minister’s discretionary fund and she left a painting for me at the church. When she called she was often manic and afraid of what would happen next—her life so untethered and unsure. Of course we all dwell in uncertainty but some of us at least have reliable places to roost, patterns of work and activity that provide a sense of stability without guarantee. She had none of that—only her own rich creative energy, her desire to stay clean, her hope of something better than the chaos that encircled her. She asked if she could keep calling and I told her once I was not the minister anymore there would be a new minister to call. But I knew damn well it was me she wanted to phone. Me she knew enough through a few sermons and coffee hour snippets and some hospital visits, not someone else due to arrive in August.
In truth, I knew I could never do any more than listen to her lostness and encourage her to keep toughing life out when deep inside I could not imagine how given the paucity of resources she would ever get to inhabit her wholeness. I tried to set clear boundaries because previously in my life I had not and that benefitted no one. So she stopped calling. I would look at the painting she left for me last summer at church, the one of a hummingbird hovering before lilacs—and wonder whether I would take it when I move to a smaller house with less wall space. I thought of giving it away but not now. I will keep as an act of witness. Her path was set long before it crossed mine. Even if she had phoned me during this last year, I could not have provided her the safe shelter, recovery, the meaningful interactions she sought and so richly deserved. Yes, I have a guest room but I lacked the stamina. She gave me a little card with an image of a buddha that reads: “Don’t let people pull you into their storm. Pull them into your peace.” I would give anything to possess that kind of forcefield. If I had it, I would wander the streets of Jerusalem and Gaza, and the woods outside Boston—pulling, pulling, pulling.
Today though my life is peaceful, inside my gut the winds howl at lost life—at humanity’s endless storm.