Today is the day that I am to write about loss, although it feels hopelessly out of order. Loss is not the kind of day four topic about calling. Initially, when I wrote and organized a loose outline for this series, loss figured towards the bottom. But I go to bed thinking about loss, and I wake up thinking about loss, and I take this as a cue that today’s topic must be this.
Last week I decide that I must really call Kent State University and get my hands on a copy of my father’s dissertation. He finished a PhD in communications when I was young, and some of the earliest memories I have of him are of head bent over a typewriter in a basement bedroom of our house. I don’t remember that we had strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed, although I don’t also ever remember entering the bedroom while he was at work, writing, typing.
I realize, at 38, that I have not the slightest idea of his dissertation topic, and so it is now that I decide to call. I don’t know why I reach this conclusion, in the middle of summer, in the middle of Toronto, with so little evidence or external impression to recall the phantom of my father’s memory, but it may be that I am experiencing that reflexive impulse of grief that begs you to find closeness with a person who has long been gone.
My father died when I was 18. That story is reserved for another place and another time. Not here. Not yet. I have written it tearfully in the book manuscript, although of course I never intended to touch its cold cadaver. You may leave dead bodies, may say your half-numb goodbyes in your state of clinical shock, but you may never, never leave behind your losses.
They are dogs at your heels. They are the melody line that recapitulates and reinvents itself in every movement of your life.
Your losses are simply not to be silenced.
I was 23 when my brother took his own life, leaving in his wake the desperate silence of suicide. You don’t dare incriminate him, yourself, your family, so you do not speak of it. You keep your silences about your torn family fabric, and it is easy to do in a world as transient as ours.
“Do you have any siblings?”
You make an evasive answer. “It’s just me.”
I am fully aware how my point of view has changed in the short span of the last paragraph. From first to second person, from I to you. This is what always seems to happen when I write about my early life’s losses. It’s as if now, more than fifteen years later, I still cannot admit ownership of them.
Perhaps this is why, over the past year of more consistent, personal writing, when I have finally dared throw open the door of my life and tell whatever lurking in the shadows beyond the threshold, “Come in,” the first to take off his muddy shoes and stay awhile is grief.
It is time to listen to my own story and break my own vows of silence.
Is it our losses that shape us more significantly than anything else? The death of someone we’ve loved, the death of a marriage, the death of a dream. Loss is the unfortunate reckoning we make with life that, like an obstinate child, heads for the street and chances the unexpected worst. Why are these the stories I find most true in the lives of others but the stories I least want to tell?
I have lived loss, the worst of its days. I did it in college, when I met loss in the basement of a library. Me, keeping company with my books. I did it in my first year of teaching, coming home from work each night with a splitting headache and sending myself straight to bed. And when the worst of the days were over, I wanted the chapter ended. I wanted loss buried with the bodies.
I had hoped sadness would not be a chronic condition.
I am 38 now, and it seems the stories I most need to tell are those of my losses. I am attentive to this, realizing now that to be anything for God and to hope to take on the compassion of Jesus Christ (for it is He who has bled in our place), I will need my losses. I will need them perhaps more than I need anything else, it is they who remind me of how permeable life really is. And while that may, at first glance, inspire fear, it isn’t meant to.
If life is permeable, if there is to be no plugging up the holes of the unexpected worst, it is well time to give it into the hands of Another. It is time to catch a glimpse of a future city, a future home, and I need this vision for calling.
Is loss the only suitable lens for seeing it, the only real way to grab hold of immaterial hope?
Is bleeding required for loving?
But of course we have our answer.
On the night he was betrayed he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”