Drew and I skipped the houseplant stage. Early in our marriage, we rescued a scrawny tuxedo cat from the streets of South Philadelphia. Somehow this feisty little kitty had made his way to a veterinarian’s office not far from our apartment. When we first met him, he was making a disaster of his small cage, mostly because he was playful and wanted to be free. We took him home during Holy Week in the spring of 2003 and named him, Max. He was great – he loved to play fetch and hide-and-seek in the Tostitos bag. One winter night, when the heat went out, Max crept under the covers between our feet to keep us all warm. A little over a year later, we adopted Mimi, the dog. Max was mad at first, but he got used to his fuzzy sister, and they became the best of friends. Another year or so later, Ruth was born. Max was completely unimpressed, but he tolerated her, until she learned to walk. By the time Margaret was born, he had grown used to the disturbance, and when Emma Kate came along, he had learned to compete. He spent hours celebrating and grieving Northwestern football in Drew’s lap (long after the rest of us had given up and gone to bed).
After a slow decline, Max died two weeks ago Friday night. Drew and Ruth chose the spot in the back yard to bury him. Drew dug the hole, and Ruth made the grave marker. Margaret came outside for the funeral. Emma Kate watched from inside. When I sat down next to her a little later in the afternoon, she looked at me, mad in her eyes, and said, “Mama, can’t you un-dead Max? You have to un-dead him. I don’t want him to be buried in the ground.” I quietly told her that I couldn’t un-dead him, but that I was sure he was safe. Later that afternoon, she insisted that we bury some food with him in case he got hungry. That seemed to calm her. Now we look at pictures and tell stories about Max. She is beginning to understand that, although we can’t un-dead him, he remains with us in ways that are hard to explain, yet no less real. As time goes on, and she gets older, we will talk more about how life changes into eternal life, and that our word for un-dead is resurrection, and that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and that is our hope beyond the grave. The building blocks for that faith are there – you have helped to make sure of that – and for that gift, Drew and I are grateful.
In the meantime, you can see in our family’s response, the classic stages of grief – not in a linear, check-them-off-the-list kind of way, but in the human way that they just happen. There was denial, anger, a little bit of bargaining, before we slowly began to creep, reluctantly, into acceptance. Our immediate responses were as different as we are – some of us needing to do something and others more comfortable around the edges. None of it wrong; all of it real. Death is hard. It is so, so hard, and we have had a lot of it here at West Raleigh over the past year. In this reflection, I just wanted to make sure that we all honor that and give one another both the space and the support to grieve, because that is what we do as church. We can’t un-dead those we have loved and lost, but we can tell the story – their story and the story of Jesus, and we can hold hands and lean into grace, and we can pass the tissues and make the casseroles, and those are the building blocks of trusting in a love that is bigger than all of us, and for that, I am so, so grateful.
In that love,