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Kinship and Alienation (Notes on a Vigil)

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What is it that we hope to achieve here?

in our hedonistic, touristic, voyeuristic day-rider vacation

we take a pause to contemplate


this morning the lake glittered in the sun and I

I could only think of drowning.

How quickly pleasures turn to sorrows,

even now Sara shivers at the sight of that cold water.

What is it that grabbed her?

What are we doing? We came to the firm conclusion that we were not going to go, and somehow we’re still here, at this hospital, in a night lit only by candles. I’m on the outskirts of a shifting sea of people that occasionally laps up around me, pulling me into its folds only to push me out to the edges again. Each person has their own well of orange light, thick like honey, trapping distraught faces in amber; it’s entrancing, though I can’t help but feel a little like the fly that got drawn in by the lack of vinegar.

This afternoon, full of warm sun and the smell of horses and the taste of bitterness and jealousy, feels like another place and time. Was all this going on, even as the twins led us to the stables? Last night, with Trish? Before we even arrived? What kind of terrible coincidence is this, converging paths that bring us to a small town in tragedy? Maybe someday we’ll talk about this in the horrible fake-horrified tones of grandmotherly gossips: “Oh, Paul, do you remember that weekend when we went to the lake? And we found out that some people in town had died horribly, just a little while before we got there? It was so weird, wasn’t it! Really made us think about where we were going with our lives. Ah, college!”

And then Monday we go home, and it’s like nothing ever happened. A tiny window into lives we’ve never led before and, after this weekend, never will again. Or maybe it will stick with us, and my life has been irrevocably altered by this chance encounter. I’ll never know who I might have been if Ted hadn’t gotten me to go on this trip, if that other kid hadn’t had to drop out. Even distanced as we are from this, there’s an innocence we’ve lost just by proximity.

That’s a lot to think about right now, though.

“So for those gathered who have also been crying quite a lot, I invite us to the same question: Why? Why are you yourself weeping? It’s a holy question.”

I’m not crying. It’s a hard thing at funerals, always— not that I’ve been to that many, mostly older family members— to not know what kind of reaction is expected. What amount of wailing becomes performative or distracting? If you show nothing, is it cold? Ideally, we wouldn’t have to think about this— be who you are, show what you feel without worrying about how it looks. But this is far from an ideal world, isn’t it. We have to be so aware of what people think of us, how they see us. As I’ve been reminded all weekend, it’s exhausting.

Of course, this particular situation is also complicated by the fact that we don’t even know who died. Even though I think we’re starting to feel just a little bit comfortable here, with Trish and Tommy and the twins and all, every unfamiliar candlelit face I see is a reminder that we’re intruders. Well-intentioned, yes, but intruders nonetheless. If I started crying, it would be some kind of transmutative grief, like I was feeding off the mood of the crowd to process something I brought in myself. As I sit here, listening to this pastor try to make spiritual sense of a death I don’t even have the background to understand, I’m very aware that while I’m moved, it’s out of some sick kind of tragedy-porn-train-wreck-fascination. Not real sadness for these lives lost.

“Which is to say, we worship a God that is not unfamiliar with darkness. A God who comes close to those who mourn. A God who comes close to those who stand outside of tombs. A God who is not far off, but who is as close as that choppy breath that falters in your weeping.”

After all, though, isn’t every tear a kind of substitutional expression? Grief is such a vast, inexpressible emotion that we can’t show it in story-perfect, predictable ways. Even if we know who we weep for, we may feel some conflicted mess of anger and apathy and sorrow for the living and wondering what’s for lunch on the inside. Even at my own grandma’s funeral, in small-town upstate NY, I couldn’t feel any of the hurt at the time. People who had known her their whole lives told stories about her young life, before grandchildren or even daughters, and I was struck by the fact that I didn’t really know her. Until she died, she was just an elderly woman who spoke rarely and smiled less, with two daughters and years of caring for them at home and not much else. At her funeral, I learned about a mischievous teen, a college student, a young traveler and nurse, a mother with hidden sharp wit, and a grown woman who found a place for herself in the world. All that, within one person. And she was gone.

“It’s always difficult to imagine a world in which our loved ones do not grow old, do not experience the fullness they might have had. There is always more love to give, but there’s a certain kind of pain that comes with a life we find far too short.”

My grandma was 67 when she died. That’s not particularly long or particularly short, but I know for my grandpa and their kids it wasn’t nearly enough. It was far from a surprise, like this seems to have been, but it was still hard to know that everything she was and could be was coming to its conclusion. Those final chapters are never neat, of course; they’re messy and they leave questions unanswered and threads untied. We just have to write as fast as we can in the time that’s left, because even when you have a sense of when it’s going to come, you can’t really know when the end will arrive. It’s always a shock.

Young death, totally unexpected death, must just make this more difficult. Not only is it the end of a story, it’s the end of one that had barely begun to warm up and had no time to wind down. It’s grim to imagine the sum total of my life as it stands now: barely 19, outcast by his age peers, dreaming of being a writer but taking tiny bare steps towards it, stumbling through college next to people who seem to be striding. What record would I leave? Awful as it is, at least this is some kind of mark, a communal remembrance. At least they’ll be remembered for a long, long time, if only for the tragic nature of their deaths. God, I hope someone would remember me.

I’m trying not to wonder too much because it feels especially gauche and macabre in this kind of circumstance, but I do kind of want to know what happened. What brand of tragedy pulls people together like this, at a hospital where surely people sicken and die every day? What hits a community so hard they have to stop still and hold each other close, for a night at least? What comes next for them?

At the end of the vigil, we leave. We head back to our silly problems and our dancing and our pot and mixers. On Monday we leave again . We won’t stay here, in a place now colored by two abrupt deaths. Back to our dorms and classes and pot and mixers and silly problems. These people stay here, feeling two spirits shaken loose, vanished or maybe all too present. I wonder about the people we’ve met, Tina, Terri, Tommy, Trish. What have their lives been in this town? Do they feel trapped? Or is this home? Do they want to flee its claustrophobic shores? Or do they actually, truly find solace in their community?

What must that be like, a community? I’m so afraid I’ll never know. Ever the loner.

The candles are about to be blown out, removing us from our pools of honeyed light and the warm communal haven they create and sending us, isolated, into the silvery night. “While it may still be dark, the light is breaking through. And the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it. Amen.”