In October we drive to Ohio under smudged skies. Though I look for scarlet and amber in the rolling hills, instead I see disaster along the roadside — a cross with faded flowers, its birth and death dates far too close; vultures circling over a field; the crash site of an ill-fated 1925 zeppelin.
But we arrive safe — exchange hugs with Mimi and Pa-Pa and unload bags, while each child searches for their favorite farm cat. After lunch, we check out new things — a freshly dug pond bed rich with clay-mud, the pumpkin patch with orange globes still veined green.
Before long, we find the Indian corn, Pa-Pa’s humble patch, down by the Cave-woods, quiet and damp.
By now, the stalks lean down and splay to the side — homely, dark-flaxen things, spotted with mold. Giant pokeberries lace among them, glossy black-purple berries dangling from hot-purple stems, lovely but poisonous.
And, we begin peeling husks down.
White pearls, studded with amethyst-purple.
Burnished-brown knobs, shot through with cream.
Rich-red pomegranate seeds.
Translucent yellow kernels that look glazed with melted butter.
Varnished, pearlized, speckled, streaked — each ear holds a fresh surprise. We heap them, gem-like, in the bed of the Ranger.
When it comes time to go home, we pile three bag-fuls in the van. I wonder what I will do with them all, already having the first installment of Indian corn at home, gracefully mounded on tables inside and tucked round pumpkins outside.
What do we do with this bounty?
One week later, just as I tell my husband he should call his parents to check on his dad — one day home from the hospital after a major surgery — the phone rings. I watch, helpless, as my stricken husband runs out the door for the two-minute drive to his parents’.
And, I am left alone with two distressed daughters, who I pull close. We huddle around the worn chenille family room couch and pray for a miracle. A phone call five minutes later lands with startling finality on my heart, flat and hard as stone.
The girls’ eyes, brimming blue and brown, seek mine and they know, though I have to deliver the news regardless.
I don’t know what to do, in the hours that remain, while the police come and the empty ambulance goes.
So, we clean. I take the remnants of my life as it was before — suddenly so false, so flimsy, so naive, and tuck them away. The tiny hand-felted pumpkin I was working on. The bowl of shelled corn kernels from the farm I was soaking to string for Thanksgiving necklaces. I pack away the jewel-toned wool skeins, the needles and foam. I drain the kernels and wash the bowl and set the corn to dry on a paper towel in the basement.
I clear away toys and wash dishes; make the bed in big room for Nunny, who I already know will be sleeping with us. We work silently, me and my girls. I finally tuck them all in with little man around 10 p.m., on Caroline’s bedroom floor, in a huge nest of blankets and pillows and special stuffties.
I take the dog out back in the dense velvet night while I wait and hear no less than three separate owl calls, all within the space of a minute. The tremulous, quavering whistle of the tiny screech owl, the classic hoots of male and female great horned owls.
They do little to distract me from the question at hand. What do we do with this loss? So much bounty we have had — but, now, this scarcity, this lack, this loss — it mows us down.
We get through the next week in a daze of condolences and visitations and the funeral day.
She comes up to me at the funeral home, her whitish fuzz of new hair just sprouting. She gestures to her head and says: It’s been a tough year. And we talk about the son-in-law lost suddenly to a heart attack while out of town, her home burned down, the cancer. She and her husband are living with her newly widowed daughter and her grandkids now. She knows loss.
And then they come, the couple — also from our church — who just lost their 33-year-old son in the summer after a brave but brutal fight with cancer. We mourned with them a couple short months ago, and now it is us?
Now, it is us.
We find our fridge bursting with food, but we are out of Motrin and coffee and tissues.
I take the few flowers we bring home and haul out an army of vases. Because I can’t stomach the stiff pyramid arrangements, I pull the flowers out, stem by stem. I cut and tuck and make something new. I give a ribbon-tied bunch of larkspur to a friend, gather peach carnations and purple stock into a violet jug for Julianne, make a clear vase of red rose, white snapdragon and blue delphinium for Caroline.
I work on writing assignments in the dining room the week after the funeral, filled with clean tupperware containers, photo boards, the lockbox of important documents, and my father-in-law, sitting on the chair in front of me.
I have to turn the portrait around, though it seems cruel. But looking at his smile, I can’t help but be convinced he’s just on my front porch having a smoke in his red flannel shirt. I can hear the scrape of the tin on our kitchen counter as he reaches in to give Jasper a treat. I can still conjure the timbre of voice, recall his expressions — remember I probably owed him a hemmed pair of jeans.
And, now, at home, we set a place more and a place less each night. My mother-in-law is here and he is not. And, I struggle to understand. I wish I could say I have wrangled with words to describe what we are feeling over the past month, but I have not even had words.
The stories written weeks and weeks ago about my daughter’s health struggles and just now published (at The High Calling and Pitt Med Magazine) may make it seems as if I am blissfully batting about metaphor and meaning, but I am not.
All I can think of is the dried cornstalks, their lush green living exchanged for the harvest bounty of fully ripened corn. Their death yielding burnished beauty. Their bodies, dried husks serving as a temporary wrapping for the glory within.
But the life-from-death metaphor that works so neatly for seasons and harvest, how can we accept it for the loss of those we love? What beauty can come from such pain?
I do not have the answer.
One morning of the numb week that follows the sudden loss of my father-in-law, we sit in the Pretty Room with Pastor — the three who have lost their husband and father, and me.
We are planning the funeral service.
It comes time to talk hymns and scripture passages and, before I know it, I’ve jumped up, grabbed car keys and am making the short drive to my in-law’s to find his bible. What was he reading most recently, we wondered?
Pastor takes the red bible, his spot marked with a flier for a campground in the Pennsylvania mountains he so loved, and smiles.
Listen to this, she says:
If the earthly tent that we live in is torn down, we know that we have one from God, not made by human hands but lasting forever in heaven. … So while we are in this tent, we sigh, feeling distressed for this reason — that we do not wish to put off this dwelling, but that we wish to put on the other and have life swallow up our death. It is God who has prepared us for this and who has given us His Spirit as a guarantee. And so we always feel confident. We know that as long as we are living in this body we are living away from the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5: 1-6